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'Rango': A Cartoon Movie for Kids That Doesn't Sugar Coat Reality

Rango has put the fangs back into children’s entertainment.

Rango is this crazy animated movie about a lizard in a state of existential crisis. His tale is narrated in song by a mariachi band comprised of four owls, and they sing about his imminent, heroic death throughout. Rango keeps not-dying, and the band then sings about how he hasn’t died yet but he’s going to die soon, for sure. This goes on through the whole movie, which is neck-deep in death. Some of it’s kind of shocking.

So you see this is one of those cases when Crazy = Good. Because though it’s being marketed as a kid’s movie, much like all the other toothless animated kid’s movies Hollywood’s grinding out lately, Rango has put the fangs back into children’s entertainment.  Exxxxx-cellent! Somebody has decided to use the magic of cinema to raise tougher-minded offspring. ‘Bout time.


In the beginning, we have a no-name lizard who lives in a tank with a plastic palm tree, the torso of a Barbie doll, and a wind-up goldfish. With these inert “actors” as co-stars, our lizard stages plays featuring himself as the hero, as a way of staving off the horror of his empty existence.

Then a car crash on a desert highway catapults him out of his tank into the cruel world, where death is built right into the landscape. Everything in it is dead, or deadly. In order to survive, the lizard takes on an identity that seems to fit the geographical frame: a Western hero named Rango, a composite figure derived from a million movies about Western heroes.

How does a lizard in a tank know so much about movie Westerns, you ask in your literal-minded way? It doesn’t matter, dope—it’s an allegory. Also a cartoon. Either way, just go with it.

Gore Verbinski’s the creative honcho here (co-writer, director, producer) and he’s not being shy about throwing down the gauntlet: the movie fairly shouts his ambition to defy Pixar, to play Warner Brothers to their Disney. Disney specialized in cute cuddly characters, hidebound morality, and sleek state-of-the-art animated beauty; Warner Brothers countered with rangy loudmouth characters who generally had morals as elastic as their bodies, plus a refusal of any prissy obvious aestheticizing.

For years Pixar has followed Disney like a groveling courtier. Now Verbinski shoves Rango out there to take up the old Warners fight, opposing Pixar in all things. Where Pixar narratives are tight and coherent, Rango is loose and rambling; where Pixar characters are smooth, symmetrical, round, and pretty-colored, Rango characters are angular, asymmetrical, rough, shaggy, scaly, warty, mangy, one-eared, riddled with scars and flaws. There’s a bird character in Rango that goes through the whole movie with an arrow sticking out of one eye. And there’s plenty of CGI detail about the arrow-in-the-eye, too.

Here’s reliably-dim film critic Lisa Schwartzbaum on the look of the film:

The biggest strike against Rango, though — for both the movie and the hero — is that the lizard is so damn ugly. As are his animated colleagues. And by ugly I mean remarkably, repellently, did this really test well with audiences? Jar Jar Binks ugly.

God, she’s a great resource! Always wrong! Always, always wrong!

Because Rango is quite beautiful in its harsh, perverse way. The Industrial Light and Magic special effects team, in consultation with the great cinematographer Roger Deakins (the Coen brothers’ DP—your cue to bow reverently) have knocked themselves out concocting shots so vivid and startling, you suddenly remember the insane possibilities of CGI and find yourself mesmerized by little rivulets of trickling sand and watery reflections through warped glass, and you forget the rant you’d just been delivering about how American movies suck so badly, you wish they’d just stop making them, just stop, declare the whole industry dead, over, finished, done, euthanize it, kill it, stomp it, smash it—