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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.
 
 
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Rangois 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, Rangocharacters 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—

Wait, where was I?

Oh yeah, Rango. Admirable stuff, deliberately stark and distorted and funny, with a rich line-up of offbeat vocal talent: Johnny Depp, Alfred Molino, Billy Nighy, Isla Fisher, Harry Dean Stanton, Stephen Root, Ned Beatty, Timothy Olyphant.

It’s touching how Verbinski (best known for the Pirates of the Caribbean series) wants to use genre in that old, great way always available to ambitious filmmakers, as a means of thinking about something under the merciful guise of entertainment. In this case, the genre is the Western, and the conundrum is about life as a kind of limbo, out of which we’re expected to “make something of ourselves.” We have to choose something/someone to be in order to interact at all, and that generally means imitating an existing persona out of a limited range of culturally-available personae (including genre movie types), and then incurring all the crap that goes with whatever one you chose, who was never really you in the first place, but on the other hand, who the hell are you? You can’t really know, in all the mess of trying to get along, and racing the clock, and cursing your mortality. But still you fight to impose some sort of narrative shape on things, one that that seems roughly appropriate for the persona you picked. In the end, if you’ve done anything interesting—which is unlikely—you might get to be a story people tell after your demise. There’s always the risk though, that the story told will have very little to do with you, or rather “you,” and everything to do with some generic legend. (See the classic Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence for further philosophical details.)

Yeah, it’s a rotten system. If there’s a God, he’s a real bastard.

Verbinski seems genuinely interested in this kind of thing. He did an elaborate limbo-space sequence in Pirates of the Caribbean III, which was the desert Hell in which Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) confronted himself, or his lack of self, or his too many selves. Verbinski does another version of that sequence in dramatizing Rango’s nadir in the desert, after he’s miraculously crossed the highway and is “on the other side.” (“It’s a metaphor,” mutters the armadillo named Roadkill, who appears to have been run over and killed early in the film, practically bisected by a tire, but who’s somehow up walking around anyway.)

In a horizonless white glare that might be real-desert or dream-desert or afterlife-desert, Rango confronts the ultimate Western hero, the Man With No Name, who tells him “No man can escape his own story,” and draws a square frame around Rango’s face in a dirty windshield. This is a boggler, because early on, no-name lizard drew a frame around his own face in the tank-glass that was his prison, where he enacted stories about himself, to himself.  So you don’t know how to take that climactic life-lesson: it doesn’t sound so nicely affirmative as life-lessons generally do in movies.

See what I mean? Terrific kids’ entertainment! They can chew on that scene for years!

Read more of Eileen Jones at eXiledonline.