With his crooked neck, bug eyes, and Hawaiian shirt, reptilian Rango (boisterously voiced by Johnny Depp) is a Ralph Steadman creation come to anxious anthropomorphic life. A lizard with delusions of dramatist grandeur, Rango is unceremoniously stranded in a simmering Nevada desert, eventually stumbling upon the drought-plagued frontier town of Dirt.
Assuming the part of a lifetime, Rango feigns gunslinger grit and nabs himself the job of sheriff tasked with returning water to the thirsty citizenry a heroic mission that director Gore Verbinski and Industrial Light & Magic (both working on their first fully animated feature) visualize with inventive photorealistic cartoonishness.
Rango's ultimate quest is a search for the self, which his saga suggests via myriad Thompson references and meta-cinema twists, including run-ins with Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo as well as the Man With No Name is achievable through role-playing fiction.
Yet for all its genre-bending cleverness and technical dexterity, Rango's overstuffed plot fails to consistently blend its brainy pretensions with its chase-and-slapstick family-film obligations. Like Dirt's H2O supply, laughs are scarce.