Parents of the world, rejoice. Nickelodeon Films has given you a present, and his name is Rango.

The latest animated movie to hit the big screen is a truly unexpected treat. First of all, it’s not in 3D, so there’s no gimmickry to distract you from enjoying a wonderfully-kooky night at the movies. Secondly, it’s chock-ful of ‘adult’ humor, so while your kids spend their time laughing at the exploits of a goofy lizard, you’ll also get a few chuckles (make that laughs) of your own. And lastly, Rango is just flat-out fun, showcasing Johnny Depp (well, his voice anyway) in one of this best roles. Period.

After getting abandoned on the side of a desert highway somewhere in the Mojave, the chameleon-who-will-become-Rango (Depp) takes the advice of a wise old armadillo (Alfred Molina) and heads toward Dirt. There he finds a dilapidated, one-horse town that’s in dire straits, in need of water and a leader. Taking his name from the Mexican city of Durango, the lizard taps into his love for theater and weaves a fantastic tale of how he dispatched a band of meanies with just one bullet.

Then when a mean ol’ hawk comes a-flyin’ through, Rango gets off a lucky shot, and that’s all that the townsfolk need to see; the lizard becomes the new sheriff. His troubles are far from over, though. Not only is the water supply at an all time low, he discovers someone (or something) has actually been dumping the town’s water out into the desert. Rango rustles up a posse to investigate, and all hell breaks loose.

Featuring a cast of characters that look like a bizarre mash-up of Ewoks and the gang from Frogtown Hollow (for all you Emmet Otter fans), Rango is a visual treat unlike anything you’ve seen before. The animation is courtesy of (for the first time) George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, previously known as the world’s premier special effects house. There are moments (and kudos also go to the great Roger Deakins for providing ‘cinematography consulting’) that you’ll swear you’re watching a live action film.

Director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) make his first foray into full-on animation and instantly becomes a bona fide leader in the genre. Rango‘s animation easily stands up next to anything Pixar has ever given us. And the script by John Logan (The Aviator, Gladiator) is a perfect mix of juvenile hijinks and more mature comedy, riffing on everything from Raising Arizona to Cat Ballou to There’s Something About Mary. There’s a bit of a lull as things start wrapping up, and you might leave feeling like Rango was about 15 minutes longer than it needed to be, but it’s not enough to really be an issue.

The real star of the show, though, is Depp. He’s already proven himself to be one of the most talented and versatile actors working today, and his tour de force here as Rango only cements that fact, showing he’s capable of doing more with just his voice than many actors can do with their entire body. The rest of the voice cast are no slouches either, including Isla Fisher as Beans, a local iguana; Abigail Breslin as Priscilla, a cute little mousey-moley thing; Ned Beatty as the town’s corrupt mayor/tortoise; and Bill Nighy as Rattlesnake Jake. Special mention also goes to Timothy Olyphant who channels a Hollywood icon in a particularly fun scene.

Age-wise, Rango skews a little more toward, say, 8 and up due to some (bloodless) gun violence and a few ‘damn’s and ‘hell’s, but the real winners here are adults, who can finally sit next to their kids in a movie theater and enjoy themselves just as much. Better yet, parents– get a sitter. You now have a vaild excuse to go to a kids movie without the kids.

4/5 stars