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Hollywood Product: Rango

Rousing animation pays homage to spaghetti Westerns

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GENRE: Chameleon-out-of-water Western

THE PITCH: Through dumb luck and tall tales, a chameleon known as Rango (Johnny Depp) convinces the desperate denizens of Dirt that he's a hero capable of solving their water shortage, even though he's just a former house pet with delusions of being an actor.

MONEY SHOTS: In slow motion, Rango's terrarium falls out of a truck and crashes in a desert highway. Rango tries to outrun a hawk with a tin can on its head. Rango's posse rides roadrunners for steeds. Prairie dogs riding bats attack the heroes in a Star Wars-worthy set piece. Sinister gunslinger Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) shoots bullets from his tail.

BEST LINE: "I once coughed up a whole tribe of pygmies. They started looking at me weird," remarks a member of Rango's posse around a campfire.

SUBTLEST JOKE: "We'd turn on each other like a bunch of animals!" Get it? They are a bunch of talking desert critters — and they're rendered with astonishing texture, detail and personality.

BEST BAD PUN: "It's a puzzle! It's like a big ... mammogram!"

BODY COUNT: The Western derring-do features plentiful explosions but few on-screen fatalities except for a huge, rapacious hawk and the town banker, found drowned in the desert (in one of the film's Chinatown references). Rango's spirit guide (Alfred Molina) is a roadkill armadillo nearly bisected by a car tire.

SOUNDTRACK HIGHLIGHTS: A mariachi band of owls serves as a delightful Greek chorus. The townsfolk perform a reluctant line-dance to Hank Williams' "Cool Water." Los Lobos croon such tunes as "Walk Don't Rango" and "Rango Theme Song."

PRODUCT PLACEMENT: A bottle of Pepto-Bismol provides the outhouse for Dirt.

NOTABLE CAMEOS: Timothy Olyphant voices "The Spirit of the West," an aging gunslinger in a serape, in what amounts to a "Deadwood" reference disguised as a Clint Eastwood reference. Legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton voices the blind leader of a larcenous clan of prairie dogs. Toy Story 3's Ned Beatty speaks for the town's sinister mayor and seems to be doing Chinatown's John Huston.

FEAR AND LOATHING IN DIRT: At one point, Rango collides with the windshield of a convertible that appears to be driven by Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas author Hunter S. Thompson, whom Depp played in the film of the same name.

HEY, WAIT A MINUTE: Rango's a chameleon, right? So why doesn't the film make use of his natural, color-changing camouflage? Apart from a couple of brief scenes, his color always stays the same.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Where Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean films let Depp improvise on rock stars and pirate lore, Rango riffs on master thespians and spaghetti Westerns. It's slow to start and kids probably won't get the jokes about Western clichés, vision quests and pretentious actor behavior. Rango remains a brilliantly animated, rousingly entertaining adventure-comedy that pays homage to the kind of Hollywood you thought had ridden off into the sunset.

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