My first child will be born in just a few weeks, so lately I have been considering animated family films more closely than usual, which was already close to begin with. Each day I think of another movie I can't wait to share with her, but before we get to The Princess Bride or even My Neighbor Totoro, I accept that we'll be sitting through dozens of first-run assaults on my entertainment budget, most of them with no loftier goal than killing 80 minutes of a rainy Saturday afternoon. I'd predicted a concern for insipid humor and training-wheel consumerism, but now more selfish, geeky questions creep in to the back of my mind: What's the inevitable finale to the Alvin and the Chipmunks shrillogy going to do to help my daughter fall in love with the movies?
If Rango is even half as influential as it deserves to be, I may have that much less to worry about. There's a fair bit to recommend in Gore Verbinski's critter-fied Western romp, but the first impression it makes, and manages to build on, is that computer-animated features have at last found definitive common ground with live-action film. This isn't to slight Pixar and their occasional peers—Toy Story 3 and the films it recently beat out for the Best Animated Feature Oscar are surely superior entertainments—but there are plenty of ways to push the medium forward and here, finally, is a cartoon mostly indistinguishable from real life. You may find yourself wondering where they found so many articulate, firearm-trained animals.
The obvious credit goes to Industrial Light and Magic, making a stunning debut as a full-service animation house. The rough-and-tumble rodents, reptiles, and birds populating the town of Dirt (on the outskirts of Las Vegas, we infer from a meta-cameo by a duo of addled travelers) are given as much character by their loving design and animation than by anything the story finds to do with them, from the kink-necked titular chameleon (voiced by a mostly interested Johnny Depp) to an inbred field mouse named Spoons. That they're brought to life with unprecedented photorealism seems almost an afterthought.
The technology distinguishes Rango, but it's how Verbinski puts it to use that makes his first foray into animation so notable. With the help of True Grit cinematographer Roger Deakins (who also consulted on WALL-E) he has lit, shot, and directed Rango as a "real" movie, balancing the heavy mythology of the cinematic West with the fluffy high adventure of his Pirates of the Caribbean films. (In one standout sequence, Rango and a posse of townfolk are pursued by an air force of psychotic moles riding bats that combust on contact with arroyo walls; in another they trek through an underground cave, past a giant glowing eye that no one ever bothers to question, or explain.) The effect is a visual sophistication beyond what we've been shown before, or what we might have expected.
The key, for better or worse, is pastiche. The outline of Rango's story—a lost, lonely lizard wanders into a town beset by drought, larceny, and enormous predatory birds, and in faking the role of hero eventually becomes one—is rarely more than an excuse for Verbinski and co. to crib mercilessly from the revisionist Westerns of the late 1960s, borrowing everything from tone to dialogue. They even occasionally reach outside the genre: The film's central conspiracy is lifted from Roman Polanski's Chinatown, right down to the mayor's Huston-esque jowls.
The story, then, may seem familiar to adults, but Rango's consistent novelty keeps it afloat. The problem may be how it ends up playing to kids. Sensitive parents should be warned that there is enough danger, darkness, and even mild language to earn Rango its PG rating, though others may be excited to see these elements creeping back into children's films. (Particularly challenging is a gathering at a water spigot just outside of Dirt that has more to do with lampooning religious groupthink than moving the story forward.) What may occasionally leave the little ones behind, though, is just how hard Rango leans on the tropes of a genre with which most 8-year-olds will have little familiarity.
Still, it's a worthwhile ride, and skewing a little too old is preferable to the winking crudeness that only now seems to be falling out of fashion. Heading into a banner year for reboots, sequels, and cheap also-rans, this may be a dusty breath of fresh air, and the kids might accidentally learn a thing or two about the movies.