Director: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp
Judging by the respective box office takes of Rango and Cowboys and Aliens, I'd say there was only room for one Western hybrid movie this year and apparently a cartoon chameleon > Indiana Jones and James Bond. Reteaming director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp (who worked together on the first three Pirates movies), Rango is a smart, funny, and great looking film.
Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) is a spoiled but lonely pet until his terrarium falls out of the back of the family car, stranding him in the Mojave Desert. Taking the advice of a slightly worse for wear armadillo (Alfred Molina), Rango sets off into the desert, eventually meeting an iguana named Beans (Isla Fisher) and landing in the town of Dirt. Dirt, which is experiencing a severe water shortage, is also in need of a new sheriff, a position which the Mayor (Ned Beatty) gives to Rango after he accidentally kills the hawk that has been terrorizing the town.
At first Rango is thrilled with his newfound power - it fits in well with his theatrical sensibilities - but then the bank where the water supply is kept is robbed and Rango discovers a Chinatown-esque conspiracy to control the town by controlling the water supply. Rango tries to do the right thing by standing up to the Mayor, but his Act One victory leads to his Act Two downfall: now that the hawk is gone, Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) isn't afraid to come back. After being publically shamed and forced out of town, Rango must find the Spirit of the West in order to fulfill his destiny and bring about Dirt's salvation.
Rango is a treat for Western fans, as it contains a number of references to some of the great movie Westerns. It references a variety of other kinds of films as well (including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in one of the film's funnier moments) but it doesn't get weighted down by them. Sometimes when a movie contains a number of references, it starts to feel a bit hollow, like the filmmakers are showing you what they've been watching rather than what they, themselves, are capable of. Rango is very much its own entity, however, and easily folds its references into a story that is compelling and engaging all on its own. The screenplay by John Logan finds a nice balance between comedy and drama (albeit a very light form of drama) as well as between Western tropes and a more contemporary style.
Verbinksi, helming his first animated feature, does an excellent job, particularly with the action sequences. The film moves very well, unleashing its big scenes with enormous bursts of energy while still being able to maintain the audience's interest during its quieter moments. I expect that Rango will be back in the cinematic conversation in a big way in the months to come given the dismal reception of Cars 2 and the unlikelihood that Pixar will be able to dominate the animated categories in the year-end awards. It certainly deserves the attention.