I saw Rango tonight and the ravers aren’t wrong. It’s too subtle and referenced and movie-savvy for kids, but it’s great for tweeners and and any adult who knows from Sergio Leone and Chinatown and Apocalypse Now and yaddah-yaddah. It’s the smartest and most enjoyable mainstream animated feature since Toy Story 3, and an agreeably hip western that’s satiric and yet “sincere.”

Well, semi-sincere. You’re supposed to smirk and chortle, and to be honest I didn’t really chortle all that much. But I was smiling now and then and generally glad I was seeing it, and pleased with the fact that Rango knows about holding back until the very end and then paying off — always the mark of a good film.

I despise the exaggeration that most animated films traffic in, but Rango is, for an animated film, restrained and relatively dry, and I very much respect director and cowriter Gore Verbinski, co-screenwriter John Logan and lead voice-star Johnny Depp and everyone else for having prepared and shaped and honed it just so. Rango will probably be nominated for a Best Feature Animation Oscar in early ’12. You could even…yes, you can call it the best film of 2012 so far.

Rango is all about water (or the lack of), hence the Chinatown parallels. Honestly? I didn’t think it was making a great deal of sense at first, or really going anywhere to the extent that I felt engaged in the narrative. But it definitely comes together during final third.

The best moment in the whole film is a discreet little kissing scene that’s all about deft, gently acknowledged emotion.

Cheers for Depp (who voices Rango, the lead lizard) and Isla Fisher (lead female lizard, although I frankly couldn’t understand her half the time), and good old Ned Beatty (an old turtle by way of John Huston‘s Noah Cross), Bill Nighy (a rattlesnake gunslinger by way of Lee Van Cleef), and Alfred Molina (as a grungy, bearded, Spanish-accented armadillo named Roadkill).