Stepping out from under the brutal regime of Katzenberg's 'commercialism is God' military junta at Dreamworks Animation, Paramount enters this genre with a highly impressive debut effort that often defies description. In a field so dominated by formula, "Rango" offers a welcome change as it travels on tangents that vary from the crazed to the surreal. Director Gore Verbinski and scribe John Logan are newcomers to animation and it shows, but what the film may lack in coherence and depth, it generally makes up for with a refusal to pander to kid-friendly conventions.
ILM's first attempt at a fully animated feature is visually jaw-dropping, everything from the various skin and fur textures of the animals to the details of the town of Dirt is impeccably rendered. Crafted with such care and attention to detail, the visual effects house sets a new standard that many others will find hard to top. The script itself though isn't as polished, cobbling together an offbeat plot lifted almost directly from "Chinatown" while cloaking it in western tropes that John Ford and Sergio Leone would've been proud to call their own.
With animated films we've become conditioned to a certain amount of heart and sentimentality, "Rango" lacks that emotional hook so it does come off as something of a cold affair at times, one so caught up in trying to be clever that it fumbles the all too few times it's trying to be moving. Yet the humor is very specific, avoiding the broader pop culture parodies of "Shrek" and the like in favor of cinematic in-jokes and character-based gags.
At times it's so delightfully obtuse and just downright weird that you're inclined to forgive its lack of bigger laughs. It's a film that could have easily become an all too self-conscious homage, but the early establishment of an attitude that anything could happen stops it from becoming rote. Strong performances from Depp's manic but thoroughly engaging titular chameleon, Isla Fisher's almost "True Grit"-inspired female lead, John Huston's Noah Cross-like tortoise mayor and Bill Nighy's slippery rattlesnake enforcer all shine. Even smaller turns are commendable including Alfred Molina's existential-thinking armadillo and Timothy Olyphant's best Clint Eastwood impersonation as The Spirit of the West.
"Rango" does wear out its welcome by the last act as it has to bow to convention. Once all the smart references and quirky character stuff is put to the side in favor of servicing the rather thin storyline, this robust feature loses its steam. Clocking in at 107 minutes, it's a good 15 minutes too long and slightly overdoes it on many key sequences including the bat aerial attack and Rango's self-doubt walkabout which, aside from their length, are otherwise brilliantly conceived.
It's a sharp and eccentric film that won't find a wide appeal with the masses, but a certain portion of the audience will walk away adoring it - likely the kind that doesn't often get into the animated genre because of its often tedious predictability. A Disney movie this ain't, "Rango" is one of the few times it's probably better to leave the kids at home and go by yourself. As it stands, it's already looking likely to be one of the top animated films of the year. Dreamworks and Pixar will certainly have their work cut out for them if they hope to match it.