Usually fans of Westerns are lucky if there's a new one every couple of years. We're only three months into 2011 and already we have two! First came the genius of the Coen brothers' reunion with Jeff Bridges for 'True Grit' and now Johnny Depp and his 'Pirates of the Caribbean' director Gore Verbinski head into the desert with 'Rango'. If you're a fan of cowboys, don't let the fact that this is an animated movie put you off - there are plenty of yeehaws to go with the guffaws here.

Rango (Depp) is a very smart house lizard who whiles away the day in his glass case by playing out adventures where he is the hero. He wishes something exciting would happen and when his human housemate decides to move, the misfit gets a lot more than he bargained for.

On the highway, Rango's warm-blooded chauffeur narrowly avoids a crash, but in doing so his glass case falls out of the car and smashes on the asphalt. He's so domesticated he can't even find a rock to hide under!

Wandering through the wild, Rango arrives at Dirt, a drought-ravaged town with downtrodden locals, a big boss mayor and plenty of undesirables to make life even worse. Dirt needs a hero, and Rango needs an audience, so he reinvents himself as a gunslinger, against all odds wins a showdown with an eagle and is then made the sheriff. But just how far can his spoofing take him - and how dangerous will it become?

Depp's chameleon superpowers as an actor make him the perfect man to play Rango and, like many of his movies, even hardened cynics will feel younger after watching this one. (Maybe it's Depp's choice of films that helps him look not a day over 30 in real life!)

Rather than just have his stars standing around microphones, director Verbinski has made the cast act out the scenes on a stage with props and costumes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-Bc43WVoL0) - "emotion capture" according to Depp. It's a tactic that gives 'Rango's excellent set pieces even more energy and makes viewers want to see more of every (brilliantly realised) character. Parents, be prepared to answer "Can we get a lizard?" after watching.

While there are times when the script could have been a little sharper and tighter (the romance between Rango and Fisher's character Beans had more comedy potential), this is still a summer treat in early March, with breathtaking heroics from the animators, nods to the likes of 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas', 'Apocalypse Now' and 'True Grit' and a quality tribute to Clint Eastwood at the end. A growl of approval from the legend is guaranteed.

There's no word yet about whether we'll see Rango saddle up for a sequel, but he'll definitely need a tux for next year's Oscars.

Harry Guerin