DVD Release Date: July 15, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: March 4, 2011
Rating: PG (for rude humor, language, action and smoking)
Genre: Comedy, Adventure, Animation
Run Time: 107 min.
Director: Gore Verbinski
Actors: Voices of Johnny Depp, Ned Beatty, Isla Fischer, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, Ray Winstone

Fans of classic Westerns and classic films, rejoice! A new animated film visually references the likes of Sergio Leone and John Ford, as well as non-Western films like Chinatown. The framing and imagery are striking, sometimes mind-blowing, and the film will stir the souls of cinephiles.

However, to the extent Rango is an animated film aimed at the family audiences, it might not be so well received.

After a rough first 20 minutes, the film manages to find its footing, settle into an amusing vibe and overcome the initial resistance it generates. But along the way, it provides its share of jokes aimed clearly at adults, not kids, and introduces a villain who, while effective, may be too intense for young viewers. That makes for a strange viewing experience, one of detached amusement and wondrous imagery, with a central story that never feels consequential and is sometimes downright off-putting. Yes,Rango is light and funny when it’s not bizarre or frightening, but the uneasy mixture might not sit well with viewers that want a stronger narrative.

A chameleon (voice of Johnny Depp) spends his days encased in glass with a companion wind-up fish and mannequin to keep him company. He lives in his own world, but that world is shattered—quite literally—when a car accident on a desert highway sends his terrarium out of the vehicle, where it scatters Rango and his friends into the Wild West desert.

It’s a place where a friendly armadillo (Alfred Molina) can steer Rango toward “enlightenment” via “the spirit of the West,” and where creatures “commune with the spirits.” This is all treated in a lighthearted manner—a Zen attitude that equals a laid-back approach to life. It’s more The Big Lebowski than a religious treatise.

Rango ends up in the town of Dirt, inhabited by owls, tortoises and other creatures, including the spunky reptile Beans (Isla Fischer). Through his own exaggerations, Rango finds himself sheriff of the town, dedicated to figuring out why there’s a shortage of water in Dirt. The reserves, kept in the town bank, have been declining, and signs point to a deliberate dumping operation on the outskirts of Dirt. An alternately friendly and menacing mayor (Ned Beatty) makes it less than easy for Rango to get to the bottom of the situation, as does the menacing Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), brought to vivid life by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic.

Director Gore Verbinski, who worked with Depp on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and who has made thoughtful if not entirely successful films like The Weather Man, shows more creativity here. The film is helped by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who consulted on the look of the movie (he did something similar for last year’s stunning How to Train Your Dragon). That makes Rango a visual treat, and that strength will be enough to carry many viewers through a film that often is too “meta” for general audiences, particularly kids. That younger set may be entertained by a group of mariachi owls, the spunky Beans and the other townsfolk of Dirt. But make no mistake: Much of Rango will sail right over their heads. And the slithering, imposing presence late in the film of Rattlesnake Jake may send more sensitive kids onto their parents’ laps—or right out of the theater.