I’d heard that I’d need some familiarity with Westerns to really get “Rango,” a bizarre, blithe retake of a genre where they ride rough and the wilderness wins. And it was a good forewarning: what’s so great about this movie about desert critters is that its Wonka-wrapper-meets-acid trip animation, fast-paced wisecracks, and swashbuckling story are all saddled up with a bounty of classic film references.
As you may already be aware, Depp voices Rango, a flimsy, bulgy-eyed lizard dressed in a pink Hawaiian shirt. In the opening scene, he’s acting out Shakespeare, his troupe consisting of a plastic goldfish, the upper-body of a Barbie doll, and a dead bug that floats in a small pool of water. While the others remain inanimate, he wonders why the production’s gone flat before deciding that he, the hero, isn’t conflicted enough (though, the fact that he’s talking to himself might be evidence of a bored antagonism).
The camera pans out, revealing the stage: an aquarium, placed hazardously atop other car trunk cargo. When the vehicle hits a bump, the door unlatches and he’s knocked out the back, his boxed-in world shattered as it hits the asphalt. It’s the first in a series of important existential moments; at various times within the film, he’s seen drawing boxes around a reflection of himself and asking, “Who am I?”
He’s helped along in that question by the bump: an armadillo, now split in equal halves, cleanly cropped by a tire mark. Despite the bloodless gore, he’s able to talk to the lizard, and it turns out he won’t be left for roadkill; in a turn of Looney Tunes trickery, he at once returns to his rounder natural form. Presumably, he has this kind of mystical healing power because he’s a guru for “The Spirit of the West.” He sends a parched Rango on his way toward the local town, Dirt, to find water and a new, boundless self-meaning.
Rango finds the one, but is left thirsty. Arriving at Dirt—a familiar but surreal edition of the one-road frontier town—he visits the local bar and calls for a glass of water. In lieu of agua, he’s slid a cactus stem of juice, told there’s a water shortage, and asked, “You’re not from around here, are you?” “Who are you?” he’s also asked. And after a moment of out-of-body reflection, he puts his theatrics to work, improvising a detailed self history—that he’s from the “far west, beyond the horizon,” and that he’d killed a band of seven brothers with a single bullet.
However embellished, he immediately proves his word: when a pesky hawk swoops into town, he sharpshoots the predator with only one in the chamber. He’s promoted to instant fame.
And to sheriff. As law enforcer, his chief task is to solve the mystery of where all the water’s gone. This sets up its very Western-like main plot dealing with the subjugation of land and the politics of resource monopolies.
Or at least that’s what loosely holds together the many adventures that still remain in what’s left of the 107-minute movie. What else is there? A cave dive. A carriage chase through a canyon (the pursuers being a gang of mole bandits that ride bats—they swoop down into the channel much like the X-Wing fighters in Star Wars). A duel with a rattlesnake who hoists a machine gun to the end of his tail. And a cameo from the raspy-voiced—I shouldn’t spoil who—as “The Spirit of the West.”
It’s all very fun, much as we’ve come to expect under the wild, wacky and sometimes irreverent direction of Gore Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”). In my opinion, he’s begun to set out a visual style, a particular kind of character and a brand of humor that’s every bit as distinct as Tim Burton.
Does the pretending lizard find out who he really is? After sifting through some honest internal conflicts, yes—he finds out that a man’s not in the name, but in what he does.
Similarly, this film might be given a name like “western” or “animated” or “satire.” If so, the titles aren’t exactly helpful. While “Rango” is in a lot of ways a film on films, it’s also its own oddity that’ll keep your eyes popped and skin scaled.