2011, Gore Verbinski -- Netflix
It seems that ever since Toy Story theatres and home video have been flooded with digitally animated movies, and in almost every case, if it's not a Pixar film, the films have to work extra hard at drawing any serious attention to themselves. Box office is one thing, where Shrek, Ice Age, and Kung Fu Panda seem to do quite all right for themselves, but critical acclaim and any sort of recognition for going beyond toilet and body humour seems fleeting. What Pixar set the standard for was not just the craft of digital animation, but world building, character development and storytelling that seems geared for adults while still appealing to children, rather than the other way around. Pixar, and most of their creative team, realize that sometimes adults have a hard time letting go of "reality" and that animation is an effective way to bring out the inner child, to experience a sense of awe, wonder, and discovery again. Most other digital animation houses are more concerned about bankroll, cashing in off the child demographic, abandoning good, character-driven storytelling for an easy punchline. It's to the point that if it doesn't say Pixar, then I'm generally not interested. Which is why I skipped Rango upon its arrival in theatres.
Well, that and my kid didn't seem to express much of an interest in seeing it. Until months later. Thankfully it had arrived on Netflix in a surprisingly quick turnaround. I was sold almost immediately. The film opens with a gecko, voiced by Johnny Depp, reciting a play with a headless Barbi torso, a toy fish, and a dead cockroach as his costars inside his small terrarium, currently in mid-transport in the back of a station wagon. A moment of agitation on the highway is all it takes, and in a beautifully executed slow-motion sequence, the gecko's entire life is shattered on the road. What results is the search for not only a new life, but a new identity. Christening himself Rango, he comes into a small desert town whose water supply is fading, with the town following behind it. With an egregious land baron, a family of thieving moles, and plenty of trouble, Rango accidentally talks and walks (or stumbles) his way into the role of sheriff of the town. Of course, he's ill equipped for the role, and things continually get worse for him.
With inspiration from Don Quixote, countless westerns, and Chinatown, Rango is a rich film, story wise, centered by a character who has lived his entire life in isolation, with television and film as his only guide towards understanding others (as well as nature). It is largely a classically-styled western, with drinking, smoking, violence and all the expected scenery and tropes cropping up throughout. It caused a bit of a fuss upon initial release because it doesn't really hold back from the genre's trappings, but in some respects the western in the 40's and 50's was seen as a kid's genre, despite all the gunplay and booze. If it's deemed a kids movie at all, it should be done so with that consideration.
Of every film I've seen directed by him, I've acknowledged Verbinski's wonderful visual sensibility. He has long had an innovative style, with a great understanding of color, shadow, composition, movement, and the like. I wonder if the extensive use of CGI in the Pirates of the Caribbean films prepared him for directing a full-on animated picture, because it's wonderful to watch. There are many dreamlike sequences throughout the film, but each has their own texture, their own level of reality. Rango's fever dream in the desert is drastically different than his dreamlike encounter with the Spirit of the West. In this and many other respects it's quite handily Verbinski's best film (and an Oscar worthy one to boot), and of all the non-Pixar animated films of the past 15 or so years, I would say this is the best of them, though it still doesn't approach storytelling from the same direction.