During the opening of Rango, its unnamed reptilian protagonist is trying to finish a production of his original play. The pet stands in his tank, surrounded by inanimate objects, and finds himself in the middle of an existential crisis: "Who am I?" he asks, bulbous eyes boring into the audience. "I could be anyone."
After a bump in the road causes his tank to fall from a car and crash on the side of the street, he sets out on a Western-worthy journey across the Mojave desert to a waterless town called Dirt that's on the brink of collapse. There, the thespian lizard adopts an identity he names Rango, a rough-and-tumble sheriff and a hero that comes to save the town from outlaws and dehydration, all in his quest to become exactly what he wants to be: anyone.
Naturally, this identity conflict poses some problems for Rango, but these problems go beyond the character to affect the movie itself.
Like its protagonist, Rango is referential, witty, hilarious and intelligent, but in its struggle for an identity, it tries to be too much, and ultimately spends too much time trying to be smart and never quite gets around to being likeable.
That's not to say it doesn't have its good aspects. Visually, Rango is probably one of the most strikingly beautiful and unique things to come from American cinema in a long, long time. Every slightly misshapen lump freckling across Dirt's inhabitants' skin looks real enough to touch, and audiences can feel the Mojave's heat, made vivid through a color scheme consisting almost entirely of dry browns, reds, greens and grays. Forget Pixar's glossy color palette or Disney's bubblegum bright CGI; Rango's reptilian characters and desert settings aren't aesthetically pleasing, but the supposed ugliness of it all is so painstakingly rendered, with so much detail and texture, that it becomes beautiful.
Rango, however, is not simply fun for the eyes, it's fun for the ears as well. This movie is clever, and every few lines warrant a giggle if not a full-out belly laugh. This wittiness is only augmented by the top-notch voice work, done by actors from Johnny Depp to Abigail Breslin and Bill Nighy, who give credence to Rango's kooky characters.
Yet, all of these positive aspects are drowned out by the roaring bizarreness of it all. Between Clint Eastwood, the potato bugs and an armadillo that won't die despite having his major organs crushed by a car, the strangeness is constant, and the movie is fully aware of it. It's often metaphysical and dotted with film allusions. It's a movie with an agenda, private to everyone but the filmmakers themselves, and as such, things like solid character development or even character likeability are forgotten beneath the comedy and a sea of surrealism.
Rango is not a kids' movie, nor is it an adult movie; it's simply a weird movie that, despite its shortcomings, manages to be a good, if not great, comedic yet strangely traditional Western yarn.