Dir. Gore Verbinsiki
(2011, PG, 107 min)

Is it possible to award a Best Cinematography Oscar to an animated film? Rango might be a reasonable test case. It’s one of the most beautifully “shot” animated films I’ve seen, and I put that in quotes because it’s not shot in a conventional sense, with cameras and lenses. It’s made with computers, and maybe that’s even more impressive. It simulates light, color, and shadow in ways that are not only realistic but artistic, creating atmosphere, humor, and surprising moments of pathos in its homage to classic westerns.

The film credits as a visual consultant the great Roger Deakins, who has shot some of the most beautiful films of the last ten years, including No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and most recently True Grit. A quick look at Deakins’s IMDb page shows that he consulted on another visually striking animated film, How to Train Your Dragon. I don’t know exactly how much Deakins contributed to the visual style of these films, but whatever he’s doing he should keep doing it.

Rango’s director is another surprise: Gore Verbinski, who helmed The Ring, the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, and The Mexican, among others. This is better than those films by a considerable margin, visually and emotionally more mature even with talking lizards and sinister tortoises. It’s strange that animated films on average seem to have gotten smarter while a lot of live-action fare has gotten dumber. There’s a strange disconnect in Hollywood studios that credit children with enough intelligence for Rango, but provide teenagers and adults with Thor.

Johnny Depp voices the title lizard, a pet chameleon abruptly tossed from a family’s car when the vehicle swerves to avoid an animal in the road. Stranded in the desert, Rango wanders his way into a town called Dirt where a water shortage threatens the townsfolk, and after making up a story about who he is, he’s enlisted as the new sheriff and must improvise his way towards solving the crisis.

The film sags a bit in the middle when a posse is formed and an overly hectic chase scene ensues with a group of gophers who ride atop bats that burst into flames when they crash – I know it’s foolish to criticize a cartoon for lacking realism, but even for a talking-lizard movie that’s weird. But it picks up again, ironically, when it slows down for a period of disillusionment during which Rango is shown – in a scene of surprising emotional effect – walking heedlessly across a busy desert road.

The screenplay is by John Logan (Sweeney Todd, The Aviator, Gladiator), from a story credited to Logan, Verbinski, and James Ward Byrkit, and it’s full of rich verbal, visual, and physical humor that’s best not spoiled. Much of this material is darker than expected, even the comedy, but that’s not a criticism. I doubt a child older than seven or eight would be troubled by it, unless they have a thing about reptiles. I think we tend to underestimate what children can handle and understand. I watched Ren & Stimpy when I was a child, but it wasn’t until I grew up that I was alarmed by it. Don’t take that as a direct comparison, though. They don’t make cartoons like they used to. In very many cases, they’re making them better.