Do not let the fact that Rango is being produced by Nickelodeon Movies, or the fact that it’s animated make you think that it’s a kids’ movie. Yes, it is — in the broadest strokes — accessible and fun for children. But this is in fact a movie for movie lovers of all ages, and for lovers of western movies, in particular.
By this, I do not mean something like Tangled, which was entertaining and fun for all ages, while being unquestionably a kids’ movie. Nor do I mean something like Megamind, which throws in enough clever lines and references to keep the adults engaged while it plays to their children. No, this is a full-fledged grown-up movie, which happens to be made in such a way as to entertain children as well, and which just happens to be animated. It’s also a movie which is very much aware of its nature. It expertly deconstructs the conventions of the western genre in a way that hasn’t been seen since Blazing Saddles, but without that film’s (somewhat) gently mocking tone.
As with many classics, this is a Campbellian monomyth. The hero-with-a-thousand-faces shows up this time — appropriately enough — in the form of a pet chameleon with identity issues (Johnny Depp). He lives alone in his terrarium, dreaming of a theatrical life, but failing to ever quite define himself. Of course, the hero is a blank slate and is as much defined by his story as it is by its hero; encased in glass, there’s nothing for him to blend into. The closest he comes to characterization is his Hawaiian shirt, lifted straight from Depp’s performance in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
But of course our hero receives his Call to Adventure. His owners are driving across the country when they swerve to avoid an accident, throwing his terrarium down onto the highway and smashing him out of his mundane existence. He meets a wise armadillo (Alfred Molina), who tells of the Spirit of the West, and points him in the direction of Dirt, a small town a day’s journey away.
Arriving in Dirt, our hero meets the usual cast of archetypes: Beans (Isla Fisher) is a desert iguana playing the proud frontier woman maintaining her family’s ranch; Priscilla (Abigail Breslin) is an opossum playing a town child; Tortoise John (Ned Beatty) is the powerful town mayor; and a grand supporting cast of other desert animals fill out the familiar population of an old west town.
It is here that our hero adopts his identity as Rango, and captivates the town with the tales he spins. After accidentally disposing of a hawk that has been terrorizing the townsfolk, Rango is declared the new sheriff. And it’s just in time, as the town’s dwindling supplies of water are stolen and it’s up to Rango to save the day. The path will lead him under and over the desert, through confrontations with a city’s worth of moles (led by Harry Dean Stanton) and the enemy gunslinger Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy). And along the way, the hero will come into his own through a literal meeting with the Spirit of the West — brought to life in the way any lover of westerns knows it must be.
It’s rare that a monomyth so self-conscious as this manages to avoid dragging itself down into cheaply going through the prescribed motions. And yet Rango not only highlights its nature but transcends it at the same time. But director Gore Verbinski is nothing if he is not a consummate storyteller, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing a better job with a story that, at its heart, is about telling stories.
Verbinski is also a movie lover, which shows through in the particular references and general tropes that pop up continuously. Each one works organically into the whole, and each is clearly included with love rather than casual name-dropping or winking mockery. The only thing I didn’t notice — and I’d love to be proven wrong here — was a prominent Wilhelm scream. This is not just a story about telling stories, but a movie about the craft and culture of movies as a whole, and western movies in particular.
But don’t get the idea that this amounts to a dull, academic treatise. You could walk into the theater completely ignorant of a century of cinematic history — as I expect most of the young children in the audience will — and find plenty to love. Those of you raising young moviegoers could do worse than starting with this film and following up with everything it references.
Computer graphics may not be completely photorealistic, but they’re getting damned close. The detail is exquisite, and the palette is amazingly subtle. And the action is choreographed with an eye towards the same epic scope Verbinski brought to Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s fast and fun when it needs to be, but also introspective and even reverential in turn.
The humor runs a wide gamut from funny faces for the youngest viewers, to slapstick, to lampshaded tropes, to dry wit for the savvier adults. Everyone involved on the acting side pushes their performances just enough over the top to fit the mythic nature of the material. The body language and facial expressions are excellent, and they speak as loudly as any voice does.
It’s unfortunate that for various reasons Rango is going to be marked and marketed as a children’s movie, and that this may keep a wider audience from seeing it. Don’t let the fact that it’s animated, or that it’s able to entertain younger audiences make you think it’s not intended for adults. Movies that remind us of how great movies can be are few and far between these days. It’s good to remember why we love these stories, and why we love this way of telling them.
Worth It: definitely. No question about it.
Bechdel Test: fail.