It's not easy being green, a famous amphibian once sang. Well try being a chameleon with an identity crisis, Kermit. Rango, the eponymous hero of director Gore Verbinski's first foray into animation, has his lack of self brought into sharp focus when he falls from his fishbowl existence and into the unforgiving desert outside of Las Vegas.
This search for self – as well as for water – drives the narrative of this animated feature which is both thankfully not in 3D and also skews towards a slightly older audience. Indeed, the under-5 set may find Rango's constant battle with death too much to take; the first being his ejection from his owner's car, the next at the talons of an eagle, before arriving in the town of Dirt where death shadows his every move.
It's here in Dirt where Rango (the name the chameleon adopts in the spur of the moment) re-invents himself as a gunslinging hero and the man best suited to restore law and order to the dust bowl town, and discover what has happened to the town's water supply. It's also here where the film makes the largest of its nods to other films: Roman Polanski's Chinatown.
And there are numerous references to Westerns – classic and spaghetti – which Rango basically is. Most of these references are aimed at the parents who will accompany the kids to see Rango, as well as the more film literate teenager. So, too, is the film's darker tone and Rango's existential quest for self. “Who am I”, the reptile is constantly asking himself, usually in whispered voiceover.
Johnny Depp was an excellent choice to voice Rango, no doubt Verbinski, who directed Depp in the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, was aware of the actor's inner lizard. But Depp's voice work never takes you out of the film. Nor does his fellow actors, most of whom – Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy, Alfred Molina, Abigail Breslin – I failed to recognise, although Ned Beatty, as the town's Mayor, is unmistakable; perhaps because it comes so soon after his voicing of the villainous bear, Lotso, in Toy Story 3.
But the most impressive element of Rango is the animation. It's high praise indeed to say that the scenery and images - the desert, the saloon, the water when it comes - are as life-like as animation gets. And the characters? You've never seen an animated cast like them. Beginning with Rango himself, they're a motley crew of the aesthetically challenged rarely seen in family films.
In a year slated for animated sequels (Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Happy Feet 2), and franchise spin-offs (Shrek's Puss-in-Boots is stepping out on his own), Rango could prove to be an original in more ways than one, and not just the saviour of Dirt.