There's a scene in the animated movie Rango where the main character, a chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp, leads a posse into the desert to track down the water that's so crucial to their survival. They stumble across the old bones of a creature that didn't make it out of the blistering hot wasteland. "Circle of life," sighs someone.
The scene is a significant one, giving you an idea of how the movie is structured. It's a tribute to the classics, both animated and live-action, that have come before it, putting emphasis on old-fashioned storytelling rather than new-fangled razzle-dazzle.
Storytelling takes precedent over everything else here (bucking trend, Rango isn't in 3D). Its central story has been told hundreds of times before in classic westerns: a stranger comes to town and saves it from imminent doom. But you've never seen this story told with a spastic, talking lizard in a flowery shirt before.
At the movie's start, Rango is a pampered pet with an overactive imagination. He's the hero of the make-believe world inside his aquarium, fighting bad guys and saving the girl. But after his tank falls out of the car that's carrying him across the desert, Rango suddenly finds himself in a real-life adventure — just like the kind he's played out in his mind so many times before.
He eventually finds a beat-up old town appropriately called Dirt. The residents (various birds, bugs, and rodents) are worried about their dwindling water supply, which is lorded over by an old mayor (voiced by Ned Beatty) and protected by a group of mean critters. Rango, for the first time on his own, proclaims himself a hero gunfighter and soon becomes sheriff.
Rango plays around with many movie stereotypes and conventions. There are also plenty of references — to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Apocalypse Now, and especially Chinatown, whose plot is pretty much lifted wholesale here — sure to go over the heads of kids. The movie has a darker streak than other recent CGI extravaganzas. There's lots of death, desperation, and drinking going on here.
There's also a deliberate sense of storytelling that slows down the movie occasionally (the middle section is kind of a snooze). But the animation looks great, focusing on details that are usually steamrolled over in CGI. By concentrating on story and character instead of overstuffing its frames with empty flash, Rango doesn't look at all like the Megaminds you're used to. It kind of drags, but there's a certain appeal to this old-fashioned adventure.