Little big lizard

Johnny Depp plays a chameleon sheriff in Paramount’s “Rango.”

Mark Brenden

âÄúRangoâÄù

Directed by: Gore Verbinski

Starring: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher and Abigail Breslin

Rated: PG

Showing at: Area theaters

LOS ANGELES âÄî For two decades, Johnny Depp won over legions of nose-tipping critics, screen-goggling women and bubbler-toking bros for his roles as dark and quirky antiheroes. His 2010 foray into mainstream mediocrity left us all scratching our heads. In the year that was, his turns in âÄúThe TouristâÄù and âÄúAlice in WonderlandâÄù were the source of more punch lines than dorm-room posters.

The enigmatic actorâÄôs newest endeavor, playing the title role as a chameleon in ParamountâÄôs fun-for-the-whole-family animated feature, âÄúRango,âÄù doesnâÄôt really clear anything up.

In âÄúRango,âÄù Depp plays a sheepish lizard with no name who, after adopting the persona of a messianic sheriff of a dusty wild-west town, comes to be known as Rango. The character is both boldly wacky and comically squeamish, a cross between his character in âÄúFear and Loathing in Las VegasâÄù and Don Knotts in âÄúThe Shakiest Gun in the West.âÄù

In the age of 3-D revival, a standard 2-D animated feature is a rarity, to be sure. The âÄúRangoâÄù team is ardently dismissive of 3-D mania. Director Gore Verbinski, who also directed Depp in the first three âÄúPirates of the CaribbeanâÄù movies, said he saw no need to throw any more DâÄôs on that screen.

âÄúI watched the movie; I donâÄôt think thereâÄôs a dimension missing,âÄù Verbinski said at a press junket in Los Angeles. âÄúI donâÄôt watch it and go, you know, âÄòItâÄôs flat,âÄô or itâÄôs missing anything. So, you know, we talked about it early on and it just didnâÄôt seem like we needed to go there.âÄù

With adult humor (there is a prostate joke) and spaghetti-western homage aplently, the unavoidable question becomes, âÄúIs this a kids movie?âÄù While most tykes certainly arenâÄôt going to pick up on âÄúThe Good, the Bad, and the UglyâÄù references, there is plenty of goofball physical comedy and animated eye candy to keep everyone happy. Exocrine gland jokes aside, Verbinksi maintains that, though he may throw the adults a bone or two, this is a movie for the young-at-heart.

âÄúI think kids, you know, in general as an audience, are the way forward because theyâÄôre not sort of sullied by intellectual expectation or this or that,âÄù Verbinski said. âÄúI trust kids far more than I do adults. Kids give you the honest opinion, you know. They tell the truth.âÄù

Whether itâÄôs a kidsâÄô movie (âÄúRangoâÄù), a pothead movie (âÄúAlice in WonderlandâÄù) or an awful movie (âÄúThe TouristâÄù), Depp said he doesnâÄôt really care. Always an old soul, he said heâÄôs simply not interested in millennial pictures âÄî an almost comical paradox for someone who is perhaps the biggest movie star of the new century.

âÄúI donâÄôt do well with modern films, to be honest,âÄù Depp said. âÄúI just âÄî I donâÄôt know âÄî opening credits, and IâÄôm just gone.âÄù

ThatâÄôs the thing with Depp: HeâÄôs always just gone. Like the chameleon he voices in âÄúRango,âÄù he blends into his environment until we canâÄôt recognize him anymore.When we get used to him being one thing, he becomes another âÄî the ultimate 21st-century outlaw. If thereâÄôs a lesson to learn in his most curious year to date, itâÄôs to take every choice he makes with a shaker of salt, and never to be surprised.