Pop culture, by its very nature, cannibalizes the larger culture around us. At it's best, it reinterprets and reflects back our collective memory. Nothing does that better than movies, as Shlomo Schwartzberg points out in his review of Rango in Critics at Large.
I must confess I never thought I’d use the words brilliant and Gore Verbinski in the same blog. This is, after all, the director of the lame Pirates of the Caribbean movies (2003-2007) and the annoyingly shrill Mouse Hunt (1997). He also directed The Weather Man (2005), an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Nicolas Cage drama. Thus, none of his previous credits prepared me for how flat out inventive, original and entertaining Rango actually is.
Rango is the name of a chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) who, when we first met him, is trapped in a terrarium with a couple of inanimate objects, including a fake duck and a headless mannequin. Rango is a dreamer and to while away the tedious days, invents all manner of cinematic scenarios, involving his companions, fueled by an over-active imagination and likely too many days spent watching movies. So when an accident sees his ‘home’ dropped in the Mojave Desert, freeing him from captivity in the process, it’s not long before Rango, having found his way to the desert town of Dirt, is being hailed as a gun-fighting legend. Ostensibly, he’s the legend who killed the villainous seven Jenkins brothers, supposedly with just one bullet, a story he’s happy to accept as his truth. Unfortunately for him, there are a few evil folk in town who don’t believe that this slick newcomer is who everyone thinks he is.
From its clever Western tropes – the local watering hole is called The Soiled Dove – to its consistent depicted ‘reality’ (only creatures that could conceivably exist in the desert, such as rabbits, armadillos, owls, rattlesnakes, moles, iguanas etc. make their appearances in Rango), it quickly becomes evident that this movie is something special. The references are either decidedly non-juvenile – mentioning everything from prostates to urine samples – or subtly evoke all manner of classic movies. Ned Beatty’s Tortoise John, mayor of Dirt, who pronounces that “he who controls water controls everything,” is a deft reincarnation of John Huston’s evil Noah Cross in Chinatown; Tortoise John even looks and sounds like him. And that’s a cinematic nod that younger viewers will likely not get, a refreshing refusal on Verbinski’s part not to pander to his film’s supposed demographic.
Other movies evoked in the film include Fred Zinneman’s political western High Noon, Mel Brooks’ raucous comedy Blazing Saddles, Sergio Leone’s intense Spaghetti westerns (Timothy Olyphant, the only ‘human’ character in Rango, pops up looking and sounding like Clint Eastwood from the Leone films, though his moniker is The Spirit of the West and not Leone’s The Man With No Name.) and even Francis Coppola’s surrealistic anti-war movie Apocalypse Now (a chase scene is set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” which admittedly is a bit more obvious than the rest of the film’s movie tributes). None of these evocations, though, take away or distract from the film’s main story: that of the hapless/courageous Rango, his evolving relationship with the townsfolk of Dirt , which is slowly dying of thirst, who come to believe in him as their saviour and the bad guys, most of whom smoke, as bad guys are wont to do in the movies, determined to stop or expose his lies. There’s also, natch, a (genuinely) sweet love story, between Rango and the pretty iguana Beans (Isla Fisher), who has the disconcerting habit of occasionally freezing up mid-sentence and losing the train of her train of thought when she snaps out of her brief coma. It’s a quirky detail that comes to represent how Verbinksi and company – including screenwriter John Logan, whose diverse credits include The Aviator (2004) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) – regularly approach this potentially clichéd material. The Mexican mariachi band, comprised of owls (which routinely pops up to narrate and comment on the proceedings, and by speaking directly to the viewer acknowledge the cinematic nature of this project), is a particularly nice, witty touch. Hans Zimmer, who scored two of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, supplied the spot-on tunes in Rango.
Rango is beautifully animated; the computerized special effects neither overwhelm the story nor drown it in frenetic activity, as has been the problem with some recent animated movies, such as Pixar’s Toy Story 3 and Up. And the careful attention to detail in the slowly suffocating and expiring town – from the tumbleweeds on the dusty, dry streets to the sweat on the brows of the often scared townspeople – is exquisite The movie even kills off a main character, surely one of the few times outside of Bambi that a ‘kid’s movie’ has carried out that drastic deed. Rango’s SFX are all to the point in illustrating the day-to-day goings-on in Dirt, a dangerous place which is regularly besieged by ravenous hawks, vicious rattlesnakes and menacing Gila monsters, voiced by such sterling character actors as Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, Bill Nighy, Alanna Ubach and Alfred Molina. They’re not obvious choices for voice work, but to a man and woman, all of them are right for their parts, and none more so than Depp, whoseRango is an enticing meld of bravery and bravado, as if Gary Cooper’s upright sheriff in High Noon were crossed with the doofus, but likeable, city slicker lawman played by Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles. That unlikely pairing of two such disparate movies comes to symbolize the unique nature of Rango. It may play with classic western motifs, but what it does with them is never what you expect. Parents groups be damned, this is an animated treasure that should be marketed not just to the kids, who will enjoy it only at a superficial level, but to anyone who appreciates creativity and thought in their movies. Like the dissipating water in Dirt, this is a scarce commodity in our day and age.
- originally published on April 2, 2011 in Critics at Large.