“Rango” is a deliciously demented and slyly satiric take on westerns, which means it takes on America’s deepest myths about our identity. It is wild and strange and blessedly idiosyncratic, with a witty and heartfelt performance by Johnny Depp in the title role.
Don’t let the PG rating fool you. This is not a movie for kids. This is a movie for cool, sophisticated, highly discerning teenagers and adults. Children who see it will have the pleasure of decades of “Ah, that’s what that reference in Rango was about” moments as they expand their knowledge of classic film and American history and folklore. But older audiences will be able to appreciate the way the movie salutes, tweaks, and repurposes western traditions, with shout-outs to a cornucopia of films and icons, from Hunter Thompson to Clint Eastwood and joyously cracked dialogue about conflict, irony, power, heroes, and destiny. And a brave girl lizard named Beans (voice of Isla Fisher), a mayor who is a turtle in a wheelchair (voice of Ned Beatty), a scary snake (voice of Bill Nighy), and some mangy varmints who are actual mangy varmints. And an adorable bird mariachi band to comment on the story.
It begins with an actor, a literal and metaphoric chameleon in a literal and metaphoric glass cage, sealed off from the world, his only co-stars a plastic fish and a headless Barbie torso. He is so existentially changeable that he can hardly tell reality from performance and like his cinematic western forebear, he has no name.
When a highway accident tosses his lizard tank on to the desert highway, it shatters and our hero for the first time must find a destiny and an identity. A mythic armadillo directs him toward a town called Dirt so he can find water. Once there, he picks a name for himself: Rango. And soon he is made sheriff. But it takes a bit longer for him to understand what that really means and what it will take for him to protect the town.
It’s all about water. The town needs it. But “the immutable law of the desert is — control the water and you control everything.” Rango will have to become more than a chameleon — he will have to become a hero.
There is so much going on it will require a second and third viewing, each more enjoyable than the last. Just watch Rango’s attire adapt as he gets in touch with his inner hero. There are hundreds of clever details and imaginative flourishes to make this film worthy of being put into the same category as the films to which it so charmingly pays tribute.