Rango is inessential. It’s a matter of expectations tumbling around. Listmaking possibilities. Questions pressuring you. Do I need to see an animated lizard voiced by Johnny Depp reenact Sergio Leone’s masterpieces in a movie that has no target demographic? A Greek chorus of mariachi owls—seriously—are the first thing you’ll see when you decide that Yes, life is short and the information deluge is winnowing away at my soul, but maybe I want to watch an animated lizard voiced by Johnny Depp reenact Sergio Leone’s masterpieces in a movie that has no target demographic. The owls introduce the setting and quickly become the hackiest part of this movie. Rango then begins in meta: “What our hero needs is an ironic unexpected event that propels him into conflict,” he says, while play-acting in the terrarium that is his home. That line also happens to be the dictum of modern screenwriting. So begins an experience that seems to be deeply aware of movies and their tricks, fakeouts, and fill-ins.
The deus ex machina—when the glass case-bound unnamed lizard is thrown from the back seat of a car on the move through the sky, only to come crashing down in the middle of a highway, landing and then gliding along on a jagged piece of glass—is a breathtaking sequence set to what I think is “O Mio Babbino Caro.” Pretty early on, it’s clear: This is not Cars 2. Standing arch-backed in the hot sun, for maybe the first time in his life, the lizard’s skin molts and flakes off. He’s vulnerable.
The lizard with no name assumes Rango after stumbling into a local town’s dreary saloon. He reads “Hecho en Durango” on a glass of cactus juice. He shortens it, and is born. Then conflict ensues, all over. Dire conflict. In fact there is violence and visceral danger—a slithering, automatic rifle-equipped snake posing as Lee Van Cleef assaults townsfolk and a corrupt mayor threatens to send the entire town into a waterless madness. That snake also claims to be “from Hell” without irony or a wink. Rango, on the other hand, is a cowardly cipher, a classic Dorothy dropped into an unknown world. Johnny Depp—who is enduring an odd and uncommon hateable moment in culture right now—is wonderful as Rango.
Along with Depp, there’s some amazingly tactile voice work: Isla Fischer as the love interest, Ned Beatty (doubling up on villain duty after tackling Lots-o-Huggin’ Bear in last year’s Toy Story 3), Alfred Molina, Ray Winstone, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton (!), and Timothy Olyphant as The Spirit of the West AKA Olyphant’s best Clint Eastwood impression, after two variations on the same in “Deadwood” and “Justified.”
Here are the overt visual and storytelling references I picked up on while watching Rango.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Once Upon A Time in the West
True Grit (The original and the remake)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
There are almost certainly more. Maybe dozens more. This is all an exercise—screenwriter John Logan and director Gore Verbinski’s homage to 50 years of cinema, especially Westerns, but it’s also a confusing experience. Easily the most gorgeously rendered example of CGI animation I have watched, and one of the more complex and unusual stories—why do lizards and owls and turkeys and armadillos and other species live together in a broken down 1850s mining town in a decrepit dust bowl that also exists simultaneous to modern human life? Or is the lonely, inconsequential life Rango was leading the truth and the fantasy that unfolds just that—a heat-induced mirage of heroism? We’re never lead to believe that notion but it’s totally feasible. And while we’re asking the big questions, why are boars the horses of the town, and why can’t they talk, despite the fact that all other characters are animals that talk? These aren’t unreasonable questions to ask, though if you’re 11 years old and asking them, the filmmakers have probably failed. I am not 11, so I ask. Throughout I also found myself asking “Who is this movie for?” It’s meta-textual, or referential, depending on your take on how aware it is of its purpose. No child could grasp the callouts, and yet I’ll never know what it’s like to experience the movie not knowing. It’s not unlike any Quentin Tarantino movie, which is often a conveyor belt succession of visual and aural references masked as inspiration or vice versa. Narratively, Rango is so indebted to Chinatown it’s sort of laughable. And yet, who cares. Water, water, water is the root of life it keeps banging on. A town needs water. People drown, ironically, amidst a strangling draught. The powers that be are controlling it for felicitous purposes. Our hero is a ne’re-do-well thrust into extraordinary circumstances. But I accept all of those things—the references, the structure, the aping—for simple reasons.
Visually, Rango is unmatched. The animation is majestic, vast, specific, detailed. When people talk about modern animation, depth and texture come up often. There’s a telling credit at the end of the movie: Cinematography Consultant: Roger Deakins. Believability is an afterthought in animation—the subjects, like, say, talking fish or bugs or toys or ogres or superheroes, do not exist in any way we can understand. It’s an extra-reality. Pixar makes us feel but it doesn’t necessarily make us believe. Even if we love Woody and Buzz and Nemo and WALL-E, we never think they’re more than a construct. But in Rango’s universe, especially the town called Dirt, we melt into everything. It’s not that its just immersive storytelling—though it often is—it’s that there’s a tangible layer of grit and grime on everything. It almost smells. Things that digital artists slave over—hair, for example—are visible. But so are the age lines in a craggy turtle’s neck. And the corroded nose of a mole, all puss-filled and rash-infected. There’s agitation and discomfort. Nothing is symmetrical or clean. No one feels safe or trustworthy. Like in the real world. The bad guys become good guys, the worse guys become harmless. True, the hero fails and learns a lesson and prevails, ultimately, as in all these stories. But the way there is deeply weird and sloppy.
There are Dadaist stretches here—dream sequences, sky-splashed paintings, and visions of God, or god, depending on how you feel about Timothy Olyphant. There’s a cleavage-bearing female toad-whore. The female lead, also a lizard who goes by Beans, occasionally lapses into a frozen state, unable to move, speak or think—she calls it “a defense mechanism.” A spell. Rango does the same to us in spurts—a thrilling battle sequence in which gophers ride flying bats while firing machine guns at scampering amphibians set to “Ride of the Valkyries” springs to mind.
Imagine the pitch meeting at Paramount on this? “There’s a lizard, and he’s a coward, but then he’s a sheriff, and then a fraud, and there’s bats and rats and cats and splats, and also Harry Dean Stanton is totally on board!” This is Paramount’s first digitally animated feature created in-house, so, on second thought, that pitch might have actually worked. Rango cost $135 million to produce and has grossed $242 million at the box office worldwide. I also just spent $19.99 on the Blu-Ray, so maybe add that to the ledger.
“I’m actually one of the few men with a maiden name,” Rango says at one point, talking gibberish as a manner of looking for things to say to a female with whom he is smitten. This is a ridiculous statement, even for a talking lizard in a Hawaiian shirt, and yet, it seems not unreasonable in this state. You could say this movie is trippy or unreal or better experienced on drugs. And if there was some intent there, then Verbinski, who ushered this thing into the universe, has entered a Sid and Marty Krofft/Ralph Bakshi/Jim Henson pantheon of some kind. Which, considering this is the person who brought the Pirates of the Caribbean series to the world, is sort of amazing. But it still belongs. Up there with The Dark Crystal and The NeverEnding Story and Gremlins and “H.R. Pufnstuf” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and other children’s fare that makes both more and less sense to adults. And not always in that hip, snappy dialogue way. Sure, it has that, too, but it’s meant to be more than Robin Williams impersonating Jack Nicholson as a genie in Aladdin. It’s about wonder, to conjure a cliché.
Rango almost certainly will, and definitely should, break Pixar’s streak of four consecutive Academy Award for Animated Feature wins. Cars 2 is dribble and spit compared to this thing. But it’s probably bigger than that, too. I had no expectation for this. Now it’s all I want.
Everybody smart always told me to see this, even though it wasn’t 3D. Now I think I finally understand why. I should trust my friends.