'Rango'

"This staring contest is getting us nowhere."

** (out of four)

Lonely lizard Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) tumbles out of the family car and into a desert animal society suffering a terrible drought. Since he has a big attitude but not any actual personality, Rango pursues friendships by scamming his way to a gig as the town sheriff, resulting in yet another family movie about a hero who lies about a phony accomplishment and has to eventually prove his toughness.

The buzz: The commercial for this blissfully not-3D movie has a couple laughs, though viewers of all ages who heard Ned Beatty voice the deceptively huggable evil bear in “Toy Story 3” will be immediately suspicious when hearing Beatty voice the town of Dirt’s turtle mayor. This also may not really be fresh territory for Depp, who’s his same quirky self even as a chameleon in a Hawaiian shirt.

The verdict: Well, visually “Rango” looks excellent. Then characters start talking. So what might have been a delightful short and/or silent film becomes an incredibly busy pest of a comedy, leaning on easy jokes (sheesh, a “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” reference and the 10 billionth joke mistaking “thespian” for “lesbian”) and a misguided belief in its own cleverness. “Rango” fires a lot of bullets, but it evokes only tumbleweeds.

Did you know? A mariachi band of owls narrates the story as if Rango’s tale was some sort of legend, but their charm lasts only one scene. In the wake of the excruciating “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole,” it’s officially time to leave owls out of animated movies.

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mpais@tribune.com