RANGO: Animated family comedies don’t normally begin with a catastrophic car wreck. But that’s exactly the device that literally propels a highly imaginative, lonely chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) into his unlikely role as the new sheriff of a water-parched desert town in the old West.

While he searches for a primary plot wrap the film around, screenwriter John Logan (GLADIATOR) pays copious amounts of tribute to familiar movie Westerns and modern classics. Especially noteworthy is Ned Beatty’s (TOY STORY 3) villainous, wheelchair-bound tortoise who’s a dead ringer for the John Huston character from CHINATOWN (1974). Even the landscape is modeled after Monument Valley in Utah, where director John Ford (THE SEARCHERS, STAGECOACH) shot so many of his excellent Westerns. In fact, I felt that the movie paid so much attention to detail in its animation design and background cinematography that it scrimped somewhat on fleshing out a fully developed story to drive the movie. While this flaw doesn’t torpedo the film’s amusement quotient, it does keep it from penetrating the Pixar ceiling of animation superiority.

Some of the humor is on the obvious side to appeal to the kid market. There’s also enough witty dialogue and visual comedy to assure being grasped by Western-knowledgeable adults. Technically, RANGO is well above average with nods to Hans Zimmer’s musical score and Craig Wood’s editing. Like their PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, the collaboration between director Gore Verbinski and Depp (ED WOOD) works to make this animated feature enjoyable enough for purely escapist viewing for all ages.

CRITIC’S GRADE: B-

CRITIC’S NOTE: It’s widely known that Johnny Depp modeled his Jack ?Sparrow character in the PIRATES films after the mannerisms of The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards. For RANGO, Depp supposedly borrowed from the Don Knotts’ dentist/gunslinger from THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST (1968). However, I recalled a short-lived TV series in 1967, also called RANGO, that starred comedian Tim Conway as a bumbling old West Texas Ranger who managed to capture outlaws in spite of/because of his goofy screw-ups, much like Depp’s lizard. More than coincidence?