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Originally published March 3, 2011 at 12:05 AM | Page modified March 3, 2011 at 10:36 AM

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Movie review

'Rango': Johnny Depp nails his role as the lizard hero in this wild Western

A movie review of "Rango," starring Johnny Depp, whose voice performance as the lizard hero is the best thing about this frantic, animated movie.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

'Rango,' with vocal performances by Johnny Depp, Ned Beatty, Isla Fisher, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Timothy Olyphant. Directed by Gore Verbinski, from a screenplay by John Logan, based on a story by Logan, Verbinski and James Ward Byrkit. 107 minutes. Rated PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking. Several theaters.

Gore Verbinski's alternately overbearing and engaging "Rango" raises a chicken-or-egg question I associate with a lot of animated features.

Did somebody decide, at the outset, that a movie with a lizard hero and a lot of other scaly and furry critters was a good idea, and only then set about attaching a story to it?

Or was the original notion, in "Rango's" case, to make a clever film that is really about the legacies of other films — recognizable classics such as "Chinatown" and "Once Upon a Time In the West" — then choose to populate such an homage-driven production with talking reptiles, amphibians and assorted vermin?

Either way, there's something so random about "Rango" that it's easy to think of it as the crazed dream of a zoologist recently binging on DVD rentals. What makes this unhinged, wildly self-conscious comedy-adventure more than a two-hour gimmick is an inspired vocal performance by Verbinski's "Pirates of the Caribbean" star, Johnny Depp.

Depp nails his character, Lars, a lonely lizard with an active fantasy life, with a voice I can only describe as a cross between Jim Carrey, Ryan Seacrest and a hint of David Hyde Pierce's patrician Niles Crane on "Frasier."

Lost in a desert and stumbling into a Wild West town, Lars bluffs his way into heroic stature by renaming himself Rango and convincing local rubes of his six-shooting exploits. Depp adds a layer of comic hubris to his performance, and later becomes even more impressive when Rango embraces authenticity.

There are other good vocal performances, too (by Ned Beatty, Bill Nighy, Isla Fisher, Alfred Molina and Timothy Olyphant), though many get lost in the frantic din.

Rango, Lars' assumed identity, becomes not just a persona but a slow-brewing act of self-invention, an adopted destiny.

Of course, themes of self-invention and destiny are rampant in film history, and, like a kid in a candy store, Verbinski basks in blunt allusions to a few favorites, especially "Chinatown" and Sergio Leone's Westerns.

That proves disposable fun, though the director eventually raises the stakes with a cameo appearance by a genuine film icon (it sure sounds like his voice, too). Still, for all that ambition, it's hard to muster more than a shrug for "Rango."

Tom Keogh:

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