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Directed by Gore Verbinski

Opens March 4

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before a studio decided to computer-animate a western. And given animation’s penchant for outlandish-looking characters, we shouldn’t be surprised that reptiles and rodents fill in for Clint Eastwood and John Wayne.

Johnny Depp voices Rango’s hero, a technicolored chameleon who aspires to be a thespian, rehearsing scenes alone in his aquarium. Just as Rango arrives at the conclusion that he needs conflict to propel him into something more profound, his tank is flung from his owners’ car, leaving him to fry in the Mojave Desert sun. A grizzled armadillo points Rango in the direction of town, and he embarks on an imperiled journey to Dirt, a run-down, one-street locale. All is not well in Dirt: A mysterious drought has driven most badgers and squirrels to new lands. When Rango arrives, he has trouble blending in. (Get the irony?) The local varmints regard him warily.

Despite his inability to camouflage his teal skin, however, Rango morphs his character rapidly. He puts Dirt’s residents at ease by adopting the persona of a rugged vaquero, capable of killing seven badgers with one bullet. When he haphazardly offs one of Dirt’s most fearsome predators, the Dirtonians rally around him like the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. A sheriff’s badge is soon pinned to his chest by the wheelchair-bound mayor (Ned Beatty), a turtle that looks eerily similar to an aged Jimmy Stewart.

As Rango’s new title goes to his head, he ditches his old Hawaiian shirt for spurs and cowboy duds. He naively hands out a prospecting permit to a band of grotesque moles looking to rob the bank’s water. The next morning, the water cooler is gone. Cue formation of motley search party.

Rango pleasantly pokes fun at itself on occasion. Flightless crow Wounded Bird (Gil Birmingham) wears a Navajo-inspired poncho and has the air of a sage. When his fellow Dirtonians see him issuing his feathers into the wind, they ask if he’s performing a ritual. “I’m molting,” he replies dryly.

Even with some good laughs, though, Rango’s plot feels cramped: Director Gore Verbinski jumbles together an identity search, corrupt politicking, and a mournful vignette on the lost Old West. More bulbous-eyed, mousy creatures appear onscreen than is cute. One wishes the desert was a bit more barren. If you’ve been itching for a smart cartoon western, you might want to hold out for Pixar’s.

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