Anthropomorphic animals are the bread and butter of the animation industry. Ever since Walt Disney found a cash cow in Mickey Mouse, the medium has tickled audiences with talking critters that span the breadth of the animal kingdom. But Rango, the titular chameleon of Gore Verbinski's cartoon western, is something of an anomaly. The gangly, photorealistic bipedal lizard didn't graduate from the "Bambi" school of cuddly creature design. Voiced by Johnny Depp in rare comedic form, the character is defined by beady eyes, a sharply crooked neck, and a gaudy Hawaiian T-shirt.
Refreshingly, Verbinski doesn't constrain himself to Pixar's particular reality. The brilliant Disney-owned studio has set the gold standard for computer animation over the last 15 years, capitalizing repeatedly on an effective storytelling formula that put a magnifying glass over insects, fish, and rats, among others. Any of those films could be retitled, "The Secret Life of _______." Competitors followed suit, with "Madagascar," "Bee Movie," and a slew of other me-too efforts.
"Rango" turns the overcrowded genre on its ear. Despite being gaspingly more realistic-looking than your average doe-eyed Disney endeavor, Verbinski's flick doesn't stage its critters in a cartoon facsimile of the real world. Instead, the film takes place in some skewed dimension wherein humans exist, but might as well not save for their ever-present eco-footprint. The film is scaled to fit its characters and can't be bothered to stop and explain the origin of its windswept desert town in miniature. It's easiest to think of "Rango" as a modern (comedic) western in which the constituent players just happen to be scruffy rodents and scaly reptiles.
The world and its inhabitants may be grimy, but what makes "Rango" such an endearing experience is its irreverent and offbeat sense of humor. Verbinski, who cooked up the story alongside screenwriter John Logan, borrows a page or two from the Coen brothers; Rango's faux eloquence is reminiscent of Nicolas Cage or George Clooney's character from "Raising Arizona" or "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" respectively. It shares their dry wit and a surrealist dream sequence reminiscent of "The Big Lebowski" too.
Those qualities highlight that "Rango" is not a movie especially geared at children. From its litany of literate film references including "Apocalypse Now," "Chinatown," and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" to its seriously scary baddies, the film rejects kiddie convention outright. Younger or more sensitive viewers may be frightened by Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), a venomous villain with a six shooter for a tail, and parents might object to the mild swearing.
But by my estimate, "Rango" is a near-perfect kids' film. Looking as far back or further than the Grimm brothers' macabre fairy tales, the impulse to shield children from potentially off-putting content is a relatively recent development. Verbinski runs the entire emotional gradient here, exploring moments of loneliness and fear as well as adventure and jubilation. Important themes all in the human psyche. Of course, much of the humor will go over the heads of young audience members, but the copious slapstick certainly won't. In the end, it should play well to just about everyone.
That is, everyone who's in the market for a conceptually challenging cartoon. "Rango" is unwieldy, occasionally unfocused, and also the first great film of 2011. The anthropomorphic animals that comprise its world are less a reflection of the Mickeys, Bambis, and Nemos of years past than of the Waynes, Eastwoods, and Fondas. Verbinski, who famously teamed with Disney for their "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, steps out of their shadow for one of the most clever, fun, and original animated epics of the 21st century. And with the sequel to Pixar's least loved film on deck for this summer, our favorite Hawaiian shirt-wearing Chameleon may need to don a tux this time next year.