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If ever there was an actor who knew how to change his stripes, it's Johnny Depp: pirate, gangster, mad hatter, demon barber, guy with scissors for hands. Depp is a regular chameleon. So casting him as an actual chameleon must have seemed a no-brainer. That's Depp's role in the new animated film "Rango."

Our critic Bob Mondello says it worked out better than anyone could have imagined.

BOB MONDELLO: Dirt, a ramshackle town in the Mojave Desert, so dry it might better be called Dust. It's populated by dog-eared gophers, skinny mice, all sorts of mangy critters and terrorized by predators, including a giant hawk that is currently chasing a very out-of-his-element chameleon in a Hawaiian shirt.

How did the chameleon get here? Long story, but suffice it to say, he hit a bump in the road while seeking a true identity, an identity the hawk is about to help him find accidentally. He's a hero.

(Soundbite of film, "Rango)

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Did you see that?

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) What do you think, (unintelligible)?

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) This hawk is dead.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Circle of life.

MONDELLO: Now, celebrated as he becomes, heroism is not a good fit for our hero, who's played by a delectably dithering Johnny Depp. He may be a man with no name, well a lizard with no name, but he's also a suburban tenderfoot, raised in a terrarium.

Still, chameleons are nothing if not adaptable, and once he's learned to walk bow-legged, this chameleon will be calling himself Rango, pinning on a sheriff's badge and even cozying up to a lady lizard.

(Soundbite of film, "Rango")

Mr. JOHNNY DEPP (Actor): (As Rango) So what's your name?

Ms. ISLA FISHER (Actor): (As Beans) Beans.

Mr. DEPP: (As Rango) That's a funny kind of name.

Ms. FISHER: (As Beans) What can I say? My daddy plum-loved baked beans.

Mr. DEPP: (As Rango) Well, you're lucky he didn't plum-love asparagus.

Ms. FISHER: (As Beans) What are you saying?

Mr. DEPP: (As Rango) I enjoy a hearty puttanesca myself, but I'm not sure that a child would appreciate the moniker.

MONDELLO: I'm not sure a child will understand most of that exchange. But who wants things dumbed-down in a flick that's spoofing classic Westerns while cribbing plot points from "Chinatown," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Apocalypse Now"? This is not, as you may be gathering, just a kid-flick.

In fact, with realistic varmints and a PG rating, "Rango" may actually be kind of dicey for really small kids. But it's a terrific movie-lovers' movie. The more films you've seen, the more film references you'll be able to corral as they stampede by.

(Soundbite of film, "Rango")

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) People have to believe in something.

Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character) You want something to believe in? Believe in that there sign. For as long as it hangs there, we got hope.

MONDELLO: Much is being made of the fact that "Rango" is director Gore Verbinski's first leap into computer animation. Of course, he's coming from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, which aren't that far away. Still, he leaps in with the joy of someone who is well-versed in the limitations of live-action and can't wait to get around them.

Helping him are the effects wizards at Industrial Light and Magic and, as a visual consultant, cinematographer Roger Deakins, who just made the live action Western "True Grit." In that one, his camera was reigned-in by reality. In this one, he can propose absolutely anything he can imagination and seems determined to top himself in every shot, say by shooting from inside a rolling bottle.

(Soundbite of film, "Rango")

(Soundbite of music)

MONDELLO: It's worth noting that "Rango" is, by its director's choice, being released only in 2-D and that it's a lot smarter about giving depth to its images than most of its 3-D competition. It's also a lot brighter than its competition. Without those 3-D glasses, the light in "Rango" - and remember, it's all computer code - is just amazing: dusty, shimmering, exquisite. And that crooked-necked lizard at the center of most shots: a lovely little bonus.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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