Although its only March, based on this year’s upcoming animated films, I think it is safe to say that RANGO will be the best animated film of 2011. As Industrial Light & Magic’s first foray into digital animation, the company has entered the field in a strong way. If RANGO is any indication of the direction the company intends to take with its animated films, I cannot wait to see what else ILM has in store for us. What’s more, RANGO is one of those rare animated films that will probably appeal more to adults than to its targeted kids’ audience. I doubt this is what the studio intended for RANGO to become, but it was apparent during my screening that the adults were enjoying this film far more than the kids were.

RANGO takes the classic Western myths of the past and spins a story through a Hunter S. Thompson-esque sensibility (NOTE: don’t miss the Hunter S. Thompson cameo early in the film). Johnny Depp plays the titular character and the film introduces him as a household pet lizard who lives comfortably inside his little glass tank where he spends his time staging plays starring himself. The car that he is traveling in barely avoids getting into an accident, but in doing so, Rango’s glass tank falls out of the car, stranding Rango in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The story begins at this point as Rango befriends a strange girl (NOTE: all the characters from here on out are animals so when I say ‘girl’ I mean an animal girl character) who takes him to her water-starved dying town. Realizing that since no one knows him, he can basically re-create himself to be anyone he wants, Rango makes the townspeople believe that he’s a badass gunslinger. Since the town needs a sheriff, the mayor (Ned Beatty) decides to make Rango the town’s new sheriff. For awhile, Rango enjoys the respect and prestige that comes with his new role, but he soon realizes that there is a much deeper and more sinister plot afoot regarding the town’s water problem.

Let me just say this outright: I fucking LOVED RANGO! Gore Verbinski (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN trilogy) certainly knows his film history and seems to be quite familiar with the Western genre as he fashions his film into a sort of tribute to past influences. You know how most animated films these days tend to parody current pop culture? Well, RANGO does that too in a sort of way, but in a much more sophisticated and intelligent manner. Instead of giving us wall to wall jokes and parodies of whatever is in the popular mainstream zeitgeist, RANGO gives us homages to BLAZING SADDLES, Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns, CHINATOWN, John Huston, Ennio Morricone, and, APOCALYPSE NOW (that scene in turn reminded me of the sort of action sequences we saw in the original STAR WARS trilogy). RANGO doesn’t dumb anything down for its audience. The dialogue and many of the sequences are surprisingly adult, which as I alluded to before, may turn off children. A mark of a great animated film is where you forget that you’re watching an animated film and you view the film simply for what it is and that is exactly what RANGO became for me.

I’m sure most of you will agree that as talented of an actor Johnny Depp has become, he’s far too overexposed lately (within the last year, he has released 3 films with a 4th film to come out in 2 months). When I first heard that Depp was going to star in RANGO, my initial reaction to the news was immediate disinterest. In hindsight, that was a foolish assessment of the film considering the film’s Hunter S. Thompson influences. No one other than Depp is really appropriate to play the Rango character since that character is basically a toned down (i.e. less stoned) version of Hunter S. Thompson. What I particularly enjoyed about this character was in how flawed he is. In fact, for the first half of the film, I found Rango to be sort of an asshole. For one, he lies to the entire town that he killed a bunch of outlaws. When he’s made the town’s sheriff, he is far more concerned about his reputation and the trappings that come with his position. Its only after he royally fucks everything up for the townspeople that he decides to help them, which he does not for their sake but to save his own neck. Unlikeable characters such as Rango do exist in animated films, but they are rare and even then, they either look cute to make up for their despicable character or they’re only slightly reprehensible. By making Rango so detestable, his eventual redemption is all the more satisfying.

RANGO is chock full of interesting and strange characters and part of the film’s appeal is being introduced to each one of them. The filmmakers seemed to have taken painstaking steps to make each and every character unique and to stand out from everyone else. Unlike in other animated films, RANGO’s character designs don’t seem to be motivated by merchandising considerations or by any concerns to make them cute and loveable looking for the kids. The characters are perfectly adapted to fit into the Western genre by taking on the classic Western archtypes (the crooked mayor, the bookish banker, the plain Jane rancher girl, and the all-in-the-family group of bank robbers). Adding to the characters’ appeal, the film contains some wonderful voice acting as well in addition to Johnny Depp’s performance. The mayor is pitch-perfectly voiced by Ned Beatty. In addition, you have the always amazing Bill Nighy as the menacing Rattlesnake Jake. There are other great voice performances, but these were the two that specifically stood out for me.

As entertaining as the story and the characters are, RANGO’s ultimate achievement is its dazzling visuals. The film is littered with countless shots that are absolutely mesmerizing and lavish in their detail. It is no small surprise that the man behind making this happen is DP Roger Deakins, arguably the best cinematographer working today. Deakins recreates the iconic imagery contained in Hollywood’s classic Western films. RANGO beautifully contrasts its water-starved desaturated looking town and surrounding landscapes with vibrant, deeply saturated open skies. The showdown climax of the film is foreshadowed by the film’s most stunning imagery as we see the frame filled with a blood red and orange sky. RANGO is a work of art whose imagery resonates with you long after you leave the theater.

RANGO may first appear like its going to be a run-of-the-mill conventional Hollywood movie, but it turns out to be the most sophisticated animated film I have seen in recent memory. It contains a superb script by John Logan (GLADIATOR) and action sequences that will keep you on the edge of your seat. RANGO is a truly exceptional feat and a Western that ranks among the best in the genre. And what’s amazing about all this is that its ANIMATED!! I know Gore Verbinski will probably always be best known for his PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films, but let me tell you that RANGO is the best thing he has yet to put out. I had my doubts about him when it was first announced that he would be making an animated film, but I’m glad I was proven wrong. I believe that if RANGO proves to be a box office success (which it deserves to be), it will change the animation playing field by hopefully ushering in more adult-oriented animated films.