Though the littlest ones might be scared by the intensity of the action (which includes a handful of character deaths), there probably is enough excitement and comedy to keep most children entertained. "Rango" is a full-blown Western, one of the best of the past 20 years, and younger viewers won't recognize its references to other movies (which are wide-ranging enough to include the expected Westerns and other classics, such as "Apocalypse Now," "Chinatown" and "Star Wars").
Rango's strength is that it's quite different -- different enough to feel more like a personal Verbinski film as opposed to a studio's animated product -- but, rather exasperatingly, it also doesn't go all the way in that direction, giving in to a story that hits the usual template-mandated beats and appeal-to-mainstream crises and climaxes.
The plot’s familiar – the stranger who becomes the saviour of an imperiled town - but here the hero is Johnny Depp‘s skittish chameleon, who passes himself off as gunslinger Rango and becomes the sheriff of the parched desert town of Dirt, where the water supply has suspiciously run dry. Among the critters and varmints he encounters are Isla Fisher’s feisty lizard heroine, Ned Beatty’s treacherous tortoise mayor and Bill Nighy’s lethal villain Rattlesnake Jake.
Director Gore Verbinski, maker of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, doesn’t just reference Westerns, though. The water-theft plot owes a debt to detective classic Chinatown, and there are visual nods to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and an extended sequence that replays the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ aerial-attack scene from Apocalypse Now with bats instead of helicopters.
Varying types of skin, hair, clothing, weapons, and accessories show incredible detail, as do such minor sights as the planks of wood that make up the buildings, the glass window in the mayor's office and a brief glimpse at Las Vegas. Colors are myriad and look spectacular, with whites, tans, browns, and blacks dominating but getting punctuated by a patch of green skin, locks of red hair, or a pink tongue. There are no traces of digital manipulation at all and the film maintains a healthy level of grain throughout.
The best thing here is the commentary, which features director Gore Verbinski, head of story James Ward Byrkit, and production designer Mark "Crash" McCreery among other voices. This is a lively listen, full of genuine insights into the animation process and plenty of anecdotes to pass around about the actors and the loopy atmosphere of the production.
"Rango" is a lot of things but not what has been advertised. It is, however, the best non-Pixar animated movie in recent memory and a shining ray of light in the early months of 2011. Great animation treat for adults for a change.