There’s a terribly dull, predictable movie at the heart of the CGI Western spoof Rango. The central mystery is a straight-ahead, surprise-free slog (a bit similar to Chinatown, minus the sex and the story twists, though with the murder intact); the characters are familiar tropes, and the tone and imagery come courtesy of countless Westerns, from Sergio Leone to High Noon. When a pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) accidentally freed from his aquarium winds up in a rough, parched Mojave Desert town and decides to recreate himself as a gun-slinging hero named Rango, there are no surprises in store: Everyone around him is exactly what they appear to be, from the scheming mayor with Ned Beatty’s gravelly voice to the tough-but-sensitive rancher’s daughter (Isla Fisher) with no purpose except to play love interest and hostage. And the ending is so heavily foreshadowed, it practically flashes onscreen in neon lights from the opening scenes.
But ignoring the weak storyline entirely, Rango is a joyously weird experience, far more concerned with texture and flavor than with elaborate narrative. The lopsided art style comes with a hefty dose of inspiration from gonzo artist Ralph Steadman, acknowledged via a cameo appearance by a Hunter S. Thompson caricature. The timing playfully alternates between expansive and manic, just as the comedy lurches from dumb puns to cinematic in-jokes to broad farce. Depp is similarly diverse, muttering to himself in a variety of curious voices, or emitting full-throated, gargling Kermit The Frog howls of alarm. The aesthetic gets demented and at times grotesque, particularly as embodied by the quartet of sad-eyed, doom-predicting mariachi owls who serve as a Greek chorus, and the Alfred Molina-voiced armadillo cut nearly in half on a busy road. Director Gore Verbinski (fresh off the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies) and screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator) seem to be more interested in creating a twisted fever dream of a world than in telling an actual story.
And for a while, rich visuals, an anarchic sensibility, and an adult, Western-tinged take on life, death, and existentialism carry the film. But Rango never integrates these imaginative trappings with its overly obvious core elements. It wants to say a lot of things about the way people voluntarily recreate themselves, either by embracing a change of scenery and circumstance, or by letting fantasy archetypes and familiar fictions shape their self-images. But the chameleon theme extends past the protagonist’s species and his self-mythologizing attempts to blend into his new world: All the color in Rango is just a skin-deep patina that would be more convincing if it went deeper, down to the bones.