It is likely you've never seen an animated kidflick like the Sergio Leone-inspired lizard movie Rango.
Drawn as if it were shot as an actual noir Western (heavy on light and shadows), with every weird desert creature you can imagine puffed up and anthropomorphized to full-screen size, Rango is a dusty head-trip tailor-made for the quirky tastes of its lead voice Johnny Depp.
(There's even a split second cameo of Depp's hero, the late Hunter S. Thompson, driving through the desert, presumably towards Barstow.)
This a lyrical and metaphor-laden piece of minor art. For children. One that references ancient artifacts like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. That might represent a problem in another movie. Too often the failure of a kids' movie is attributed to its adult-references, instead of the film itself not being very good or inspired.
But in a child's world, weird sells, regardless of whether they 'get' the subtext -- from Gumby to Monty Python & The Holy Grail. And Rango is alive with silly imagery and action, up to and including terrific "horseback" scenes of lizards riding chickens.
When we meet Rango, he is, in fact the Lizard With No Name. He's in a terrarium in the back of a stuffed family car, with a fake fish and a busted doll. Being a chameleon, he fashions himself a character actor, and the toys his fellow castmembers. Then a road mishap leaves his world literally shattered on the highway, and the thirsty chameleon with an entire Southwestern U.S. desert in front of him.
His "identity" comes together in bits and pieces when he arrives in Dirt, a town with barely enough water to survive (the precious fluid is kept in the local bank). Beyond thirst, Dirt is plagued by bandits like the gila monster Bad Bill (Ray Winstone), a giant bird of prey, and Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), the most feared serpent. Improvising as he goes, the newly named Rango is like Being There's Chauncey Gardiner if he were self-aware. Aided by dumb luck (and beautifully filmed slapstick), he soon finds himself named the town sheriff, with the mandate of solving the conspiratorial mystery of what's happening to the water. Might it have something to do with the sinister Mayor (Ned Beatty), a tortoise character directly patterned after John Huston's Noah Cross in Chinatown?
I know, I know, do kids care? Repeat after me: Lizards riding chickens.
Director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) is very cinematic with his first animated feature. And Depp delivers a lizard that is reminiscent of Capt. Jack Sparrow's mix of bravado and panic. (What was Pirates anyway, if not a cartoon?)
Created with a makeshift actor's workshop as its template, Rango is clearly a movie in which people act opposite each other -- the best way to experience the likes of Alfred Molina and Harry Dean Stanton. Isla Fisher voices Rango's iguana love interest, a rancher named Beans, with Annie Oakley intensity, and Abigail Breslin brings similar moxie to her role as a gun-toting mouse named Priscilla.
All in all, Rango is a freaky and fun ride, with some tasty philosophical asides and references for the grownups to chew on.