"RANGO" — ★★★★ — featuring the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, Ned Beatty; PG (animated violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes); in general release

It's thrilling that Industrial Light and Magic has finally thrown its hat into the animation arena.

Sure, the "Star Wars" prequels were basically animated films with a few humans thrown in, and then there's the "Clone Wars" cartoons, but fans of the Lucas-owned special effects house no longer have to wonder what would happen if ILM flexed its muscles with a full-blown animated feature.

To the delight of fans everywhere, "Rango" is gorgeous and riddled with ILM's fantasy-inspired details. The hyper-realistic display of computer generated graphics, which sometimes detracts from live action cinema, dances together gloriously in their own world.

And the story?

Well, it's almost as surreal as the animation.

Taking a page from the classic Western, times are tough in the small town of Dirt. Hope has all but run out, and if something doesn't change soon, residents will be forced to sell their land to a suspiciously comfortable mayor and walk away from the place they call home.

Enter the mysterious stranger — a Hawaiian shirt-wearing chameleon, who is just as confused about who he is as the residents he's happened upon. Eager to impress, the chameleon invents a colorful history and brands himself with the especially manly name of Rango.

Thrilled to have a hero, the townspeople quickly get behind the both figurative and literal chameleon, accept him as their sheriff and offer him the only thing they have left to offer — their hope.

Sure it sounds traditional, but that's because there's more. Like for example, the fact that Rango's first love is a headless, naked Barbie doll, or that the heroine in the story is named Beans and enters into a sort of narcoleptic-statue-like state whenever she becomes anxious.

The more time you spend with Rango, the more you realize that writer John Logan and director Gore Verbinski didn't simply create a vehicle to showcase ILM's capabilities. The world-building appears to be a genuine, creative effort. It has its own economy, its own religion and tools exclusive to the Rango world, such as old-timey-mini-gun-wielding bat saddles.

The design for this film, both visually and structurally, is simply stunning. While Verbinski decorates the frontier with some of his signature choreography, and there are plenty of nods to previous Johnny Depp roles, the product is still something refreshingly original.

I have to admit I was a bit nervous when I first saw trailers for this film. To me, it sounded like Jack Sparrow had been asked to play a lizard, and while that idea had its charm, I had a feeling it would become old within the first 15 minutes.

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Luckily, that wasn't the case. Look, we're hearing more and more about the downfall of Hollywood and about how no one cares about story anymore. And to be fair, when it comes to live action cinema, the criticism is pretty spot on.

But with Dreamworks finally working on some quality projects, Pixar continuing to be Pixar, and now ILM marching into town like the hero of its flagship effort, it should be no surprise that we're finally seeing the Oscars nominate animated films into its Best Picture category.

And while I don't see "Rango" being the next "Beauty and the Beast" or "Toy Story 3" come award season, I'm fairly confident there will be a nomination or two I'd happily swap out for it.

"Rango" is rated PG for animated violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes; running time: 107 minutes.

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