Having always been a chameleon on screen, it seems entirely fitting Johnny Depp should voice one in an animated western that reunites him with Pirates director Gore Verbinski.
Yet while he makes a wizard lizard, Rango does everything but blend in among today’s surfeit of family-friendly animations.
In fact, younger children may be positively freaked out by a cartoon that pits its timorous beastie of a hero – a household pet stranded in the Mojave desert after he’s cast out of his owner’s motor – against a town full of grotesque varmints and reptilian reprobates.
Even the characters we’re supposed to like are faintly nightmarish, leading ‘lady’ Beans (Isla Fisher) resembling Jar Jar Binks’ sis and mousy mole Priscilla (Abigail Breslin) treading a fine line between cute and creepy.
Having begun his film with an owl quartet predicting its protagonist’s imminent death in song, and followed it up with a fleeting cameo from Depp’s Fear And Loathing druggie Raoul Duke, it’s clear that Verbinski isn’t pitching for the Tangled crowd.
After all, it’s not every ’toon that introduces its star with a stream of consciousness monologue, or that includes trippy dream sequences featuring trees with eyes and cacti morphing into rattle-snakes.
Lest one dismiss Rango as a peyote-fuelled oddity, it should be pointed out the Wild West action is at least as accomplished as Toy Story 3’s spectacular opening, and that the staples of the genre (high noon shoot-outs, bank hold-ups, saloon confrontations) work just as well with critters as they do with people.
You can also spot an environmental message lurking in the scrub-grass, the animal hamlet of Dirt having been cruelly starved of water by the conspicuous consumption of nearby Las Vegas.
Throw in a plot device taken straight from The Paleface (1948) – meek coward pretends to be a deadly gunslinger – and an Eastwood-channelling Timothy Olyphant and you have a treat for oater fans. But it sho’ is weird, pardner.
The strangeness is off the scale in a kooky concoction that might have been hatched at the bottom of a bong. Then again, what do you expect with Johnny involved?