It's nice to see that, when it comes to producing quality animated features, Hollywood studios have managed to change their, uh, toon.
For many years, Pixar was the only outfit consistently releasing choice animated movies, but it finally appears that other studios' specialized departments are finally getting the hang of it. Disney has recently regained some of its old mojo, while DreamWorks and Universal have managed to lay their hands on more worthy material than what was previously being offered. Of course, let's not go overboard with the praise: For every Rango, there's inevitably a Gnomeo & Juliet.
Still, the pleasures of Rango are vast enough to wash away the bitter aftertaste left by any of the feeble family films of late, although I suppose I should hasten to add that this isn't a kid flick by any stretch of the imagination: Instead of a G rating, it sports a PG, and I daresay even a PG-13 wouldn't have been out of the question. Then again, that's perfectly in line with a work that in its finest moments comes across as a Coen Brothers film with anthropomorphic animals instead of flesh-and-blood humans. Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski has teamed with The Aviator scripter John Logan and reteamed with Depp to fashion a frequently warped and always humorous quasi-Western in which a chameleon (voiced by Depp) who had previously enjoyed the comfy life of a family pet winds up in the dusty town of Dust, where he gets elected sheriff after convincing the locals that he's one tough hombre.
Rango is so imaginatively realized in terms of its camera angles and backdrops that the sense of detail brings to mind a live-action flick rather than an animated one — it's no surprise to see ace cinematographer Roger Deakins (True Grit) listed in the closing credits as "visual consultant." As for the narrative, it's a film buff's delight, expertly incorporating elements from, among others, Clint Eastwood's Spaghetti Westerns, Cat Ballou, Apocalypse Now and, with its plot thread of the villain trying to control a town's water rights(!), Chinatown. For the PG set, the classic line "Forget it, Jake; it's Chinatown" will have no relevance, but "Remember it, Jake; it's Rango" will.
Speaking of forgetting, that's the best option when confronted with Gnomeo & Juliet, a toon take on (of course) William Shakespeare's immortal Romeo & Juliet. Here, the majority of the characters are garden gnomes who come to life whenever the humans aren't around. As in the original text, the families of the boy (voiced by James McAvoy) and girl (Emily Blunt) are constantly feuding, making their love a forbidden one. But unlike Rango, the film is strictly for small children, with only a few shout-outs to Shakespeare and a happy ending grafted onto the proceedings. The music score relies on slightly altered versions of Elton John standards, and while it's always nice to hear his classics in any form, they're usually integrated into the story in only the most perfunctory manner. Honestly, for all the difference it would make, they could have just booted the EJ tunes and instead employed, say, Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" or Cee Lo's "Fuck You."