Inventive visuals and lively voice cast lift this finely animated film above the fray. So it's a shame that the story feels both random and predictable. It also uses 40-year-old references that younger viewers won't get.
When a pet chameleon (voiced by Depp) is lost in the desert, he wanders into Dirt, a parched Wild West town populated by scruffy, attitude-filled vermin. He immediately reinvents himself as the heroic Rango, and as sheriff promises to restore the missing water supply. He proves his mettle by squaring off against a vicious hawk, but the slippery tortoise Mayor (Beatty), a family of sneaky moles and a vicious rattlesnake (Nighy) will require more effort. As will his developing romance with feisty girl-lizard Bean (Fisher).
Visually, director Verbinski knows how to keep things eye-popping, with askance character design and a raucous sense of movement. A band of mariachi owls adds some blackly hilarious narration, while the big action set pieces remind us more of a Star Wars battle than a Western shoot-out. They carry a certain amount of tension, but there's never any question how this story will end.
Especially when early hints confirm that the plot is basically a variation on Chinatown. And constant Sergio Leone references culminate in an appearance from the Man With No Name (voiced by Olyphant).
But since we know where it's heading, the plot's wacky, freeform structure feels merely haphazard. Each silly encounter is just an excuse for another visual gag. And while most of these are very funny, they never give us anything we can sink our teeth into. So we remain detached from the characters, all of whom are expertly voiced by the A-list cast and stunningly brought to life by a first-rate team of animators.
At the centre, Rango is a not-very-likeable antihero. Although we enjoy watching him struggle with his own mythology, his sheer uselessness leaves a hole in the middle of the movie. As Rango says, "A hero can't exist in a vacuum." Indeed. And yet the script never lets him develop any real heroism, allowing him to just bumble through the tale while coincidence and an unconvincing last-minute twist involving cactus do all the heavy lifting.