Captain Jack Sparrow becomes a lizard with an existential crisis, in Rango

You'll see a lot of movies about heroes struggling to find their place in the world this year. But only Rango, the movie starring Johnny Depp as an existentially challenged chameleon, really delves to the bottom of the hero's soul.

Rango is a new stoner cult classic in the making. It's expressly designed for you to get baked and watch some crazy lizard antics in the Wild West. For a movie made by the star (Depp) and director (Gore Verbinski) of Pirates of the Caribbean, it's a curiously weird little head-trip without much in the way of huge set pieces.

Spoilers ahead...

Rango is one of the most meta-fictional movies I've seen in a long time. It begins with a long scene in which Johnny Depp's lizard is stuck in a terrarium with a bunch of plastic toys, and he's making up improbable, cliched stories in which he's the hero. But then the theatrical lizard gets stuck on the fact that his imagined heroic character has no qualities of his own, and is just a blank character surrounded by colorful people whose problems are more interesting than he is. Why is the hero of the story the least interesting character? The whole rest of the film becomes an oddball quest to understand the symbolic emptiness of movie heroism.

After that opening monologue, the lizard's tank — which is on the back of a car traveling across the highway — gets thrown off and lands on the road. The lizard is separated from his plastic friends, and from his owners, and nearly dies in the desert before he finds the small town full of creatures, who all believe him when he says he's a legendary hero named Rango. (He gets the name from a liquor bottle label.) He claims to have shot all of the Jenkins Brothers with a single bullet, and tells a ridiculous story about it, involving multiple ricochets and Rube Goldberg-style bullet-caused deathtraps.

The rest of the movie consists of Rango trying to live up to the heroic legend he's invented about himself, and figure out just who his heroic self really is, as a person. Eventually, he realizes that what makes him a hero is that the people in the town need him.

Meanwhile, Rango meets a collection of colorful characters in the town of Dirt, including Beans, a lizard who occasionally freezes and blanks out, in a survival mechanism gone wrong. There's a group of mariachi owls who follow him around, Greek Chorus-style, commenting on the themes of the story, and foreshadowing stuff that's going to happen.

There's nothing in Rango that you haven't seen a thousand times before, but Johnny Depp is clearly having lots of fun goofing it up with his all-star cast. (Just watch the video to the left to see Depp and his cohort clowning around in the recording studio where they record their dialogue in an unusually theatrical fashion for an animated film.)

The other major strand in the film — which is awfully topical — is that the town of Dirt has no more water, and nobody knows where it's vanished to. And perhaps not coincidentally, the town's mayor has huge construction plans and is trying to buy up the land of all the farmers who are being ruined by the drought. It's actually sort of heart-breaking when, after a long stretch of everybody dying of thirst, Rango wanders miles away and stumbles on a Las Vegas-like community full of sprinkler systems, palm trees, lawns, fountains and improbable blooms.

Rango's story of water theft and corruption is a kind of remake of Chinatown, the 1974 Jack Nicholson movie. And from what I can gather, a huge portion of the reason why film nerds are so excited about Rango is the idea of seeing Nicholson's famous noir movie recreated as a Western with lizards, mice and assorted other small critters.

Also, Gore Verbinski and the animation team at Industrial Light & Magic come up with a fairly off-kilter look for the movie's creatures and surroundings, and there are some trippy sequences, especially out in the desert, that recall old Soviet animations and 1960s LSD-influenced films.

I have to admit, Rango didn't really wow me — most of the jokes fell sort of flat, and it seems stuck somewhere between "kid's movie" and "stoner movie." I'm not sure how much kids would dig its meta approach to storytelling. But a lot of the smartest people I know are really excited about this film, so it's entirely possible that you might like it too. (Watching the clips embedded on this page should be enough to give you a flavor.)

One thing's for sure, though — Rango is going to be the sort of cult movie that people rave about amongst themselves and watch at 2 A.M. after beer-bong blow-outs for decades to come. It's an understated little bit of self-mockery that I have a feeling will grow on me over time. If the idea of Johnny Depp having an existential crisis and doing a silly voice for a couple hours appeals to you, you'll probably dig this film.