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Notes from the Back Row

Rango makes 2D cool again

The most interesting movie this week is Rango, in which a self-deluded animated gecko in an Acapulco shirt drifts into a town called Dirt, becomes sheriff and saves the day - all the while channeling Hunter Thompson, cross-referencing Sergio Leone, and (kinda blatantly) ripping off Roman Polanski's Chinatown.

Despite suffering an overstuffed plot and a lead character with a too-easy arc, Rango is voiced by Johnny Depp and the supporting cast includes Isla Fisher ( Hot Rod) Abigail Breslin ( Little Miss Sunshine), Harry Dean Stanton ( Red Dawn) and Timothy Olyphant ( The Crazies). The cast delivers but what makes things interesting is how it all looks - this is the most visually stunning animated feature since Avatar.

On Rango, director Gore Verbinski ( Pirates of the Caribbean) teams up with special effects house Industrial Light & Magic. An offshoot of LucasFilm, ILM has done effects for everything from E.T. to Jurassic Park to Harry Potter to Star Wars.

Neither party has ever made an animated feature and, visually, they really knock this one out of the park. With ace cinematographer Roger Deakins lending a hand, Rango is an animated film with the sensibilities of a really surreal live-action. The lighting is gorgeous, the landscapes are stunning, the characters surreal and the action flies and zooms and twists like a cartoon, yet remains grounded in reality just enough to work perfectly. Technically and visually Rango gives anything from Pixar a run for the money and for the most part the flick works for kids and adults alike.

Also interesting, Verbinski chose to make the film in traditional 2D, and yet the effect is as powerful as any digital 3D release we've seen. He also took Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox approach and had all the actors performing their parts together on real desert sets. It's a much more sensible approach than hiring stars to sit in a sound booth and bang off their lines.

Speaking of banging, Beastly , a sappy teen romance flick about discovering inner beauty opens this week at the Village 8 even though all the press says its not supposed to be out until summer. Perhaps they bumped it up a few months after I am Number Four , which also stars supposed-heartthrob Alex Pettyfer, flopped at the box office two weeks ago. Supposedly, today's kids need their own take on the classic Beauty and the Beast tale, but the only reason I would even consider seeing this one is because Mary-Kate Olsen plays the witch. She was pretty killer in The Wackness, which is a way better teen flick and is therefore the download of the week.

The last new movie to hit town on Friday is The Adjustment Bureau . Matt Damon stars as a reckless politician who meets a hot dame (Emily Blunt), falls for her, then bumps into some badasses in fedoras who apparently "adjust" people's lives to fit the master plan of Fate or God or the Chairman of the Universe or whatever. These "hat" guys can travel through the time/space continuum without a Delorian and apparently must keep Damon and Blunt apart because both are destined for greatness. The idea that love smothers individual greatness is never fully explored though.

The Adjustment Bureau is a paycheck for Matt Damon - either that or he's slipping, or just wanted to bounce around New York with Emily Blunt for three months and who cares if the movie sucks. It's a neat idea, adapted from a Philip K. Dick short story, but the execution is fat and lazy. Skip it and go see the Oscar winning The King's Speech instead - the Village 8 is wisely keeping that one around for another week.