Oscar reviews: Rango confronts the generation's media-induced identity

by Benjamin D. Kabialis / Theater Columnist • February 23, 2012

Webrango paramount
The existentially-conflicted chameleon (Johnny Depp).
Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
The existentially-conflicted chameleon (Johnny Depp).
Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
In the year 2011, when many films were nothing but pale mirages, Rango revealed itself to be a pure oasis in the desert of commercial animation. Part western parody, part desert hallucination,  its images are all at once stunning in composition and grotesquely uneven in animation.  Whereas Pixar aims for your heart, Rango refreshes with a serious look at identity and existential dread.

The protagonist, a chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp, is a quick-witted, high-caliber improviser, staging plays in his terrarium with a cast that includes a wind-up fish, a Barbie doll torso, a plastic palm tree, and a dead cricket.  The lizard seems to have consumed vast amounts of media and samples narrative conventions as manically as the film itself.  “Who am I? I could be anyone,” he soliloquizes, referring both to the character he is writing and to a uniquely 21st century version of identity crisis: the anxiety of seemingly limitless possibilities of character.

In Rango,the processes of creating artistic fiction and creating identity are connected and compared.  Just as our own identities cannot be unearthed in a vacuum, the undefined lizard is thrust from his home into the Mojave Desert.  There he creates the persona of a mythical gunslinger named Rango—just as if he were learning a part in a play.  Depp slowly develops the twang and lingo of the region and the film adapts itself to a western style.  The narrative is erratic; it passes back and forth between genres, tones, and plot lines.  The film itself, reflecting its protagonist, constantly searches for identity.

Director Gore Verbinski and writer John Logan have made that rare type of film that focuses on freewheeling exploration over definitive conclusions. The result is a film of vitality.  Rango does not allow its narrative or its protagonist to be reduced.  Some will criticize its improvisational feel—but it is that dynamic quality that makes it worthy of its subject.