Who's In It: The voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Harry Dean Stanton, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Timothy Olyphant, Ray Winstone
The Basics: Rango is a lopsided chameleon who wishes he were an actor, and he gets his chance when he winds up stranded in an Old West desert town filled with a really thirsty animal population and a corrupt mayor who controls the water supply. Rango assumes a heroic pose and takes on the role of their new take-no-prisoners sheriff but soon realizes he's in over his head. Of course, you'd have to be a child not to know what happens next, but this isn't a children's movie. Kids won't get that what could have been a standard-issue find-the-hero-within story is really a crazy mashup of classic Western genre references (spaghetti and otherwise), desert hippie stoner mysticism, animal death and pessimistic 1970s defeatism. In other words, it's too cool and weird for them.
What's The Deal: Cleverly written and directed, and way more visually detailed than we're used to getting from non-Pixar animated features, it's the perfect left-field setting for its star. And if The Tourist hadn't hammered this point home strongly enough, here's more proof that Johnny Depp (in an animated, motion-captured performance) is at his best when he's not playing a regular human being. Sometimes, especially lately, it seems like he's coasting on lucrative-pirate-franchise-opportunity autopilot or guys-in-zany-top-hats roles. But this performance is one of the best he's given in a while and you never even see him on screen. In a way it's the ultimate makeup/costume, one that erases him visually but keeps his strange energy pumping directly into a cartoon amphibian. Even the ads assert, "Johnny Depp IS 'Rango.'" And they're not wrong.
Spot The References, Kids! Any serious, dark-minded child who's up on High Noon, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Chinatown, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the writings of Carlos Castaneda will really find their precociousness rewarded. So this isn't exactly Shrek-style low hanging fruit, the kind where all the jokes are about stuff like American Idol. Most of it flies by, not even drawing attention to itself. In fact, adults who aren't aware of those cultural touchstones won't know what just happened either. They'll just wonder why everything feels so not normal. And though I won't be spoiling it here, this movie contains what may be my favorite line of dialogue so far in 2011 and I wonder if it'll be topped in the remaining 10 months. You'll know it when its spoken.
Get A Babysitter: I can't stress this strongly enough. I spent the whole movie thinking about my little six-year-old nephew and how terrified he might be by the giant menacing snake character who terrorizes the other animals. And then I thought about his mom, who wouldn't exactly be thrilled to have taken a small child to a movie with this much violence, where the animals tell each other to "Go to hell" when they're angry. Older than 9 or so, sure. But not really for anyone younger than that. Know what your kid can deal with before you go.