At long last, a spaghetti Western for the kiddie set -- and one that doesn't sell older viewers short when it comes to the eccentric subgenre's more surreal and unseemly traits, while also telling a story that's suitable for all ages. Though it remains to be seen whether Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp will be able to do for cowboys in Rango what they previously did for swashbucklers in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, this dazzlingly visual animated adventure still gets high marks for delivering savory-sweet eye candy of the highest order, and exhilarating action sequences that spirit the story along at a nimble and satisfying pace.
When we first meet Rango (voice of Depp), the sheltered pet chameleon is safe in his terrarium, and embarking on epic adventures through the power of his imagination. Then, suddenly, his safe existence is irrevocably upended thanks to a bump in the road that sends him soaring out of a car window and right onto the searing-hot asphalt of a desert highway. On the advice of a wise armadillo who relays the story of the Spirit of the West, our conical-eyed hero sets out in search of a town called Dirt, narrowly escaping a hungry hawk and encountering a self-sufficient pioneer named Beans (voice of Isla Fisher) along the way. Upon arriving in the dusty desert town, Rango wanders into the local bar and convinces the townspeople that he's a notorious gunslinger with a lightning-fast trigger finger. When one of the locals challenges Rango to a showdown on Main Street, the hawk that menaced our hero on his way to town shows up looking for a rematch, and ends up beak-down in the dirt. Convinced that Rango is the real deal, the Mayor (voice of Ned Beatty) decides to name the brave chameleon their new sheriff. But Rango's honeymoon in Dirt is short-lived when bandits steal the town's entire supply of water, and the newly christened sheriff forms a posse in order to get it back. Little do they realize they're all being manipulated by one greedy power-monger who's determined to keep the people of Dirt under his thumb with the help of a diabolical villain named Rattlesnake Jake (voice of Bill Nighy), whose Gatling-gun tail makes Swiss cheese of all challengers. Now, if Rango can just locate the Spirit of the West (voice of Timothy Olyphant) and summon the courage to realize his true potential, perhaps he can finally free the people of Dirt from the tyranny that binds them, and discover his true destiny under the scorching desert sun.
Watching Rango, one thing is for sure -- if the folks at Industrial Light & Magic can't touch Pixar quality in terms of storytelling, they can definitely give them a run for their money when it comes to animation. In terms of pure visuals, Rango is nothing short of stunning. The wide variety of animal species in Dirt provide the animators with the unique opportunity to present an assortment of colorful textures that literally seem to pop from the screen, even without the benefit of 3D (mercifully saving families a small fortune in ticket dollars as well), and both the blowing desert sands and glimmering water look uncannily photorealistic. Although it's perhaps no surprise given ILM's illustrious history, the movie is an incredibly auspicious debut for an animation studio, and one that immediately places them among the powerhouse players in the genre.
Despite subtlety mixing some adult humor into the dialogue and peppering the story with knowing references to a few of the most celebrated spaghetti Westerns of all time ("The Man with No Name" character from Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy actually appears as a character in the film), John Logan's surprisingly complex screenplay does hit enough lulls that younger viewers may get distracted, though Verbinski's dynamic direction certainly helps carry the film through some of its slower moments. Each of the action set pieces displays an infectious energy and inventiveness that's certain to bridge the gap of wonder between young and old, and Hans Zimmer's charmingly derivative score does a commendable job of echoing some of Ennio Morricone's distinctive compositions, while also giving the action a manic energy that recalls Carter Burwell's music for Raising Arizona.
So, while good old Woody still doesn't have any reason to start quaking in his boots, should ILM find a screenplay that can match the quality coming from John Lasseter and company, Pixar's days at the top of the heap may finally be numbered. If and when that showdown ever comes to pass, no matter who comes out on top, the kids who line up at the box office to watch it all play out will be the biggest winners of all.