This is a well known fact in literature: How you tell a story is more important than what story you tell. Yes, originality is a fine thing, but human beings have been crawling over this planet for nigh on 200,000 years and there is a plethora of steampunk fiction that has been lost to the sands of time. For a more concrete example, Shakespeare dabbled almost entirely in remakes. Very few of his plays were original works; he chose stories that his audience knew well so that he could have fun making them interesting again. This is why I’m not against remakes on principle (it just so happens that Hollywood can’t figure out how to do them right).
Which brings us to Rango, a movie that is built entirely on recycled western tropes and is one of the most entertaining, clever and beautiful animated films of the new century.
Rango is the debut animated feature from ILM, the studio that brought us 1985’s seminal Explorers. I can share no private insight into their creative process but I can speculate that they took a good long look at what Pixar was doing, and Dreamworks, and decided to forge a third path. Pixar was at the cusp of fluid animation, delivering mature but funny family fare. Dreamworks, with few exceptions (the first Shrek and Kung Fu Panda), was making the kind of animated dreck Disney was dishing out in its 2D death throes. ILM, in an almost shocking move, decided to make an animated film for adults.
I suppose I’m bending the definition of adult here to suit my rhetoric but can you honestly tell me that a movie in which a villain tells a defenseless woman, “Look into my eyes. I want to see you die.” was produced for children? I hope so.
My vocabulary in my formative years was improved by watching Looney Tunes reruns. From Bugs Bunny I learned “inconspicuous,” “confidentially,” and “maroon,” words you don’t often hear in today’s Saturday morning entertainment. Likewise, Rango is chock full of splendiferous parlance (not limited to its eloquent protagonist). But imminent violence and patois are not the only adult components to this film, instead we also have a very self-aware premise, about a chameleon with no name, no real character, seeking to define himself. While staging a one-man play in his aquarium, he outlines in the first three minutes what must occur (an untested protagonist is thrust into the unknown via sudden conflict). For those wondering, yes, he smashes right through the fourth wall of his tank when that conflict arises.
After meeting a squashed armadillo following his destiny on the other side of the road (likely somewhere outside of Barstow), he is directed to the town of Dirt. Some smooth talking and a shootout later he is appointed sheriff and promptly sets about trying to solve the mystery of Dirt’s drought. (His eventual demise is foretold throughout by a mariachi band of owls.)
By saying this is a film made for adults I am using “adult” in the sense that Rango is completely accessible for a young audience but is a film first and foremost, genre be damned, where characters struggle, characters die, and nobody is sugar-coating anything. Watching animated films, you can get used to that especial sweetness. But ILM had the right idea in making its characters ugly; we know immediately that we are not watching a Dreamworks or Disney feature. Its creatures are so unabashedly bizarre that you could play the film muted and it would still enthrall. Do not, however.
Rango assumes that kids are interested in clever dialogue, that the quick asides will be caught on future viewings, that the sight gags will be enjoyed by the willing. This goes beyond a headstone in the cemetery that reads “He’s Dead Jim” or an outhouse made from a Pepto Bismo bottle or the aces and eights laid down on a poker table. The film also references shots from Deadwood, musical cues from Once Upon a Time in the West (the turtle mayor is highly reminiscent of Mr. Choo Choo). When the Spirit of the West makes his appearance he is modeled on Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, but he is voiced by Timothy Olyphant, arguably a great cowboy actor in his own right.
All the western tropes are here: A town on the edge of desperation, the disappearing frontier, the belle with her ranch about to be foreclosed by the bank, the reasonable bartender, the Indian tracker, the alcoholic doctor, the stranger come to save them all, standoffs, riding into the sunset. Rango’s distinct charm is how it plays each of these elements against each other in the context of animals, with a wit that is contextually rewarding.
I am a sucker for a smart protagonist and they have gone out of fashion in America. The recent Iron Man 3 gave us a genius we could cheer for, but before that we had our little chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp. Typically our fish out of water hero will be bumbling or refuse the call. Instead Rango, a chameleon, lets his environment mold him into the hero they want him to be. And when he fails, he makes his journey to the West, meets his spirit guide, and comes back with renewed purpose.
The film is a feast for the eyes and a delightful romp over western cinematic traditions. I attribute its unique vision to the fact that there is only one credited screenwriter (John Logan). And yes unique. Rango knows what it’s doing. Whilst the sheriff bamboozles his prairie dog outlaws with a play, their leader decries that, “This plot is highly predictable.” Indeed. The scene is immediately followed by a wagon chase with inbred prairie dogs pursuing on bats and firing gatling guns to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries,” as played on jugs and banjos.
Sergio Leone, eat your heart out.
Directed by Gore Verbinksi
112 Minutes (Extended Cut)
For more film reviews, check out Pierce Nahigyan’s Article Archive