03/04/2011 12:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Review: Rango

Animated films have a high bar to reach these days. As Pixar continues their storied tradition of leaving their competition in the dust, any film that doesn't have a hopping lamp in front of it is bound to disappoint.

As Pixar settles into a pattern of making sequels to its popular films, there will be a slight dip in the quality of their films. Cars was their weakest outing, so it makes sense that its sequel, as well as its straight-to-DVD spin-off, Planes, won't be generating as much enthusiasm.

Now's the chance for other animated films to claim the throne, and I think Rango will be the first to finally do it. It is a co-production between Nickelodeon Movies and ILM, the special effects powerhouse.

While it does not quite fit into the brand that Nickelodeon is known for, kids of all ages should have no problem enjoying this film. The audience I sat with was at full attention.

The film pays loving tribute to classic western movies, like the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. It's a great reminder of the genre's glory days and also a great primer for kids to discover what makes it so fun.

Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) plays the Man With No Name character, a chameleon who wanders into a town called Dirt, which is facing a serious drought. It's populated by other talking animals, like the mayor -- who's a turtle -- and the feared villain -- a snake. Each character is drawn out as a caricature from old Westerns, and the animators found clever ways of associating human physical traits with the animals that best express them. As obvious as it was making the snake a villain, I thought it was clever that his rattler could be used as a giant gun.

It seems there is no end to the good ideas in this film. For instance, an outhouse is represented as a used bottle of Pepto Bismol. Instead of horses, they ride on chickens. And in a great aerial dogfight sequence, bats are flown instead of airplanes. Every little detail enhances the verisimilitude of the film to bring us a world that feels fully realized and carefully crafted.

It's often that careful attention to detail which separates the good from the best animated films. I wasn't sure how director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) would fair by leaving the swashbuckling heroics of Captain Jack Sparrow for the much scalier territory of Rango, but he greatly benefited from an amazing animation department. For once it felt like his film was properly storyboarded and planned out before he showed up to direct it.

The character of Rango was nicely molded for Depp too, who thrives best when he can be playful and unhinged. At this point in his career, it's nice to see that he can still create new and memorable characters.

The level of animation here is the best I've seen yet. ILM used photo realistic lighting and textures to create a world that is more crisp and more beautiful to look at than any animated film I've seen since Wall-E.

I hope audiences remember Rango not just for its immensely brilliant level of animation, but also because it set out to tell an original story. As Pixar sets its sights on more sequels, it's looking increasingly likely that Rango will be the film to beat for many years.

Four out of four stars.

Rango opens in theaters everywhere today.