At the heart of Rango is a search for identity and the authenticity that comes with finding your place in the world. The Lizard with No Name (who adopts the moniker Rango) is a chameleon whose gift is supposed the ability to blend in. However, Rango appears to have never done much in the way of blending in since he seems to have spent his entire life rehearsing for an unspecified role in an unspecified adventure story. When his small aquarium, which is presumably his entire universe up to this point, is thrown from a car and leaves him stranded in the desert, Rango finally gets to live the drama he has dreamed about. After stumbling upon the dying animal-occupied town of Dirt, Rango adopts the persona of a great gun-slinging hero despite his complete lack of all the qualities that this requires.
Rango is essentially a western that adopts all the recognisable iconography, themes and characters from the distinctive genre and yet functions more as a sophisticated homage rather than the sort of self-aware parody that usually characterises computer-animated films aimed at family audiences. In fact, the non-stop references to classic Hollywood westerns and spaghetti westerns (especially the films of Sergio Leone) plus the dark and absurdist shades of humour will likely earn Rango more appreciative nods from adults rather than appealing to children, although they are also looked after with plenty of slapstick and sight gags. Despite all the familiar references to both specific films and generic western conventions, there is something refreshingly unfamiliar about the look, tone and style of Rango that lifts it above the majority of other non-Pixar computer-animated feature films.
For a start, the production design, lighting and cinematography are extraordinary. The detail found in every frame of Rango is often not even seen in many live action films and the results are gorgeous. Director Gore Verbinski has previously revealed his fascination with surreal landscapes in the Pirates of the Caribbean films and The Ring remake but in Rango he really gets to flex his imagination. Just the very idea of a desert animal Wild West town on the edge of contemporary human civilisation is curious enough but Verbinski adds some truly inventive touches to two sequences where Rango’s physical journeys evocatively reflect his psychological quest for some sort of self realisation.
Johnny Depp voices Rango and is a perfect fit for this odd and mysterious lizard with no past that the audience are nevertheless required to identify with. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, creating havoc wherever he goes and prone to manic bursts of delusional ranting, Rango resembles a more innocent and hapless version of Hunter S. Thompson as portrayed by Depp in Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Depp’s performance is the final ingredient to what makes Rango such an impressive and wonderfully strange film.