Industrial Light & Magic

This Johnny Depp-fueled animated Western toys with film history.

The dusty cards of the Old West are reshuffled into a winning hand in Rango, a madly clever animated sagebrush saga with style and wit to burn. Reconfiguring the spaghetti Western into a fusilli con camaleonte, Gore Verbinski’s surprising escape picture after years in the Caribbean is eye-poppingly visualized in a hyper-realistic style that at times borders on the surrealist. The verbal flights of fancy will often sail over the heads of rugrats, as will the innumerable references to and twists on classic movies, but the presence of Johnny Depp in the title role practically assures muscular returns for this Paramount/Nickelodeon production.

Rango has the feel of a lark, of a film lover’s spree in a playpen equipped with some of the world’s most expensive and expressive toys. Verbinski also enjoys the advantage of highly gifted playmates including technical wizards at Industrial Light & Magic (the firm’s first animated feature), some of his Pirates effects cohorts and visual consultant Roger Deakins, who helps make the picture look as much shot as animated.

Unquestionably the first kids toon to feature an homage to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Rango pivots on the pilgrim’s progress of a mild-mannered pet chameleon who finds greatness thrust upon him when he pretends to a past of accomplished gunslinging in the name of justice. In the process, he becomes sheriff of the dried-up desert town Dirt, which is presided over by a fat, old tortoise who controls the ragged community’s water supply — a situation that simultaneously allows the film to accommodate a child-friendly ecological theme even as it summons adults’ memories of Chinatown.

That Rango has something different in mind from the general run of animated features is clear in the preliminary philosophical banter between Rango (Depp), a bulging-eyed chameleon who’s normally blue, and a Don Quixote-like armadillo (Alfred Molina) whose midsection has been flattened by a truck’s wheel. The compositions, especially in this stretch, are imaginatively bizarre, as are Rango’s free-associative musings.

Ushered through the arid landscapes by a mordant mariachi owl band, Rango encounters female lizard Beans (Isla Fisher), with whom he stumbles upon Dirt’s wide range of vividly realized critters who share one thing in common: They’re thirsty and can’t hold out much longer. The wheelchair-bound, seemingly genial tortoise mayor — who is voiced by Ned Beatty and looks like him, too — promises everyone that good times lie ahead and attempts to co-opt Rango by appointing him sheriff.

While some distracting sideline villainy triggers busy chases and battles, the real bad guy is the mayor, who has been hoarding water in preparation for the day he will have bought up all of the surrounding land for cheap. His henchman is the giant Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), memorably equipped with a rapid-fire Gatling gun where his rattle normally would be. But before Rango faces his high noon with the serpent, he has an inspiring encounter with an iconic character called Spirit of the West (Timothy Olyphant), who bears a resemblance to an aged Man With No Name.

Screenwriter John Logan, working from a story cooked up with Verbinski and the latter’s longtime illustrator and conceptual consultant James Ward Byrkit, stirs the pot of genre archetypes, conventions and clichés with a sharp eye for their amusing reusability. For his part, the director broke with convention by recording the vocal performances not separately in the isolation of studio booths but with the actors working together on a prop-laden and partly dressed stage for 23 days, during which their work was shot by HD cameras so animators could reference their facial expressions and bodily gestures for inspiration. There is evidence of this working more with some actors — particularly Depp and Beatty — than others, but the verbal exchanges spark and flow in the manner of accomplished ensemble work; in the promotional materials, the filmmakers call the technique “emotion capture,” as opposed to motion capture.

But most exceptional is the visual style, which makes even the best animated 3D look like a poor cousin. More than in any other animated work that comes to mind, meticulous attention has been paid to light and shadow, gradations of color, details of faces, costumes and props and the framing of shots. Some of this is deliberately meant to ape the density of compositions in certain classic Westerns and, even more, those of Italian master Sergio Leone. Beyond this, it’s arresting to behold the twists the filmmakers add, like creating a Monument Valley-like backdrop but deliberately changing its color from reddish to a sandy yellow.

Such imaginative leaps are perpetuated by Hans Zimmer’s score, which reworks the sound of Ennio Morricone’s scores for Leone in ways that are exciting, sometimes comic but never silly.

Release date Friday, March 4 (Paramount)
Voice cast Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, Ned Beatty
Director Gore Verbinski
Producers Gore Verbinski, Graham King, John B. Carls
Rated PG, 107 minutes