Visually, Gore Verbinski's Rango is so stunning and clever that you can almost forgive it for the fact that, really, it's just not very funny.
But then you get bogged down in one of those patches where the characters are talking but not saying anything particularly witty. And while that gives you time to really focus on the intensely photorealistic computer animation, it also allows you to be taken out of the movie itself long enough to wish that screenwriter John Logan had a few comedy chops. Just a few.
Verbinski directed the very funny Mouse Hunt and the weak Pirates of the Caribbean series (the first one was OK and they went downhill from there). He and Logan have come up with a spoof of westerns here that has echoes of everything from High Noon to Chinatown, from the fairy tale "Jack the Giant Killer" to Sergio Leone.
Yet as knowing as the film is, it's never particularly witty. Even the slapstick, which starts out strong, descends into mere freneticism. Verbinski wants to be Chuck Jones and Clint Eastwood at the same time, but he is neither.
Johnny Depp voices the title character, initially a nameless pet chameleon suffering an identity crisis in his glassed-in terrarium. He puts on self-created theatricals in his glass box, surrounded by his "friends": a plastic palm tree, a wind-up toy fish and a dead bug.
Then his world is turned upside-down -- literally. His home happens to be in the back of a car traveling through the Mojave Desert -- and when his owner swerves to avoid an armadillo that is crossing the highway, the terrarium goes flying out the unsecured hatchback. The chameleon winds up in the desert, eventually wandering into a small town called Dirt.
By fluke and accident, he quickly becomes a town hero, naming himself Rango and defeating a hawk that preys on the rodents and reptiles that populate Dirt. He's named sheriff, only to discover that the town is on the brink of extinction for lack of water. Why the water has disappeared is a mystery, one that Rango spends the rest of the film trying to solve.
It's a story that features corruption, bullying and interspecies rivalry. What it doesn't feature much of is laughs. And ultimately that's the key to any animated film: Does it amuse? The Shrek films did; so did the Toy Story editions. Rango, however, is hit and miss, with long stretches between giggles.
Not that it doesn't look great. Every scale, every feather, every drop of water looks as if it's been photographed, rather than programmed into a computer. There is an inner light and an inner life to these characters that too few animated films know how to create.
On the other hand, there's a question of scale. Rango is a chameleon; in Dirt, he encounters Old West versions (in other words, they're dressed like characters out of a western) of horned toads, gila monsters, tortoises, jackrabbits, moles and other wildlife. And they're all the same relative size (with the exception of the villainous Rattlesnake Jake, who is huge). It's not something that's distracting, but it does make you wonder.
What it doesn't do is make you laugh, because Rango just isn't very funny. To paraphrase the immortal David St. Hubbins, it's such a fine line between funny, and clever. And this film can't seem to figure out where that is.
Depp certainly tries; you can feel him working his ass off to bring this material to life, using a voice that owes a significant debt to Jim Henson's Kermit the Frog. And he's surrounded by exceptional voice talent, including Bill Nighy, Alfred Molina, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty (doing a great John Huston impression) and the always undersung Stephen Root.
Perhaps your kids will be more amused than the ones at the screening I attended, but I doubt it. Rango is incredibly artful -- but its grasp of the art of comedy is unfortunately slight.