At the start of the movie named for him, Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) has no name. A chameleon living inside a glass aquarium, he’s surrounded by plastic objects—a palm tree, a headless doll’s torso, a fish—and, inside his extremely limited universe, he’s quite able to entertain himself, thank you. The camera focuses tightly on his performance, a play of his own making, where he does all the talking, occasionally pausing to pretend to hear what an inanimate object has just said to him. “Acting is reacting,” he instructs the tree.
But even as he’s entertaining himself at the start of Rango, the lizard’s life is about to change. The family car in which his tank is stowed takes an unexpected turn while it speeds down the highway and the stage-aquarium goes bouncing out the window. Following a few unnerving minutes of mayhem—including a brief landing on the windshield of a convertible driven by Johnny Depp’s character from another of his movies set in the desert, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (attentive viewers will spot an animated, utterly blotto Benicio del Toro in the back seat)—the lizard’s landed on the highway, surrounded now by shattered glass.
Immediately, the chameleon adjusts to fit in to this new environment: his skin turns gray like asphalt, then dry like sun-baked asphalt, his eyes begin to pop in the heat and his attention is drawn by a voice calling to him: an armadillo (Alfred Molina) lies in the road, divided nearly in half by a tire tread, courtesy of Rango’s family’s car. He exhorts our hero to seek his destiny in the desert (rather than stand around on the road) and soon enough, the lizard is headed west, toward the town of Dirt.
Rango gains his name when putting on another performance, this time in Dirt’s saloon. Slurping from a glass of gut-burning cactus juice, he faces a suspicious crowd of locals—moles, rats, rabbits, toads, and other Mojave desert denizens—and convinces them he’s killed seven brothers with one bullet. His listeners are rapt: in fact, they’re desperate for a hero, water, and faith, and this lizard, of all people, is a great storyteller.
Rango’s less successful—at least at first—with a lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher). She’s the tough girl in town, trying to hang on to her dead father’s ranch, despite efforts by the Mayor (Ned Beatty) to buy up all the land in sight. He’s got plans, of course, and it’s not long before you see where they’ve come from, as Rango quotes from many great stories that have come before. A turtle in a wheelchair, the Mayor is something like a cross between Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life and Noah Cross in Chinatown, zealously amassing his fortune, while leaving everyone else thirsty. Inviting Rango to look out on his under-constructing water pumping facility—just over the hills of his golf course—the Mayor tells his guest he’s looking at “The future, Mr. Rango, the future,” echoing John Huston.
As Rango isn’t precisely quick on the uptake, he’s temporarily distracted when the Mayor appoints him sheriff and the townsfolk tell him how wonderful he is. As such, he watches the townsfolk engage in a ritual they hope will lead to the Deliverance of Hydration, their eyes all zooey and their motions zombie-like. Rango watches and hopes with them, but also has a niggling feeling they’ve bought a fiction that can’t possibly come true. Indeed, as he performs more sheriffy duties—leading a posse to capture a family of moles accused of robbing the (water) bank and battling a giant and frankly odious rattlesnake named Jake (Bill Nighy)—Rango comes to see that maybe such performance, so self-involved and short-sighted, is not the most effective way to find or even invent himself.
It’s not surprising that Rango learns the value of selflessness. But it’s a kick that he does so through adventures so plainly referencing movies. Yes, Frank Capra and John Ford and Sergio Leone got there first, drawing connections among land, water, and power, in particular the power of illusion and overweening self-love. Still, it seems that the more movies tell this story, the less their makers understand it. Rango’s color-changing literalizes the problem; his genetic proclivity to fit in is inescapable, and his sense of vision is charming. Rendered by ILM’s overactive imagineers, that vision encompasses both past and future, intertwined throughout the present.