Early on while watching Rango, I thought might be watching a masterpiece. It didn’t last, though. The film begins brilliantly with a group of Mariachi owls presaging the main character’s death, and then we meet our hero (Johnny Depp). He’s in a fish tank, performing with the inanimate objects around him, and desperately lonely. More than anything he’s hungry for a role and an audience. It’s a great set up to the character, and a smart character stroke for a chameleon (acting is blending). But then his life and worldview are literally shattered when it’s revealed he’s in the back of a car that accidentally drops his container off into freeway traffic. He’s whipped around, and such leads to a moment where he flies on the window of Hunter S. Thompson’s car. The lizard is already wearing a Hawaiian shirt and played by Depp, so the allusion has been made, but the reference is then made thuddingly obvious. In this case the reference seems to be the point, though arguably (though it’s made concrete later on), it does establish location – which is near Fear and Loathing.
While stranded and freaked out, an armadillo (Alfredo Molina) shows
up and talks about the existential crisis of crossing the street. The
armadillo attempts to get to the other side and is made road kill, but
lives long enough to suggest that Rango is on a similar existential
journey. It’s too much for our lizard – he’s not ready to understand.
And such sends him into the desert, only to find that birds are his
natural enemy. He barely escapes an attack and falls deep into the
desert, where he finds respite in an empty tunnel. In the morning he is
sluiced out, only for the water around him to quickly evaporate. There
he meets Beans (Isla Fisher), who mentioned that water’s scarce, and the
townsfolk think she’s imaging the sluicing. She points him to her town
There the narrative comes into focus. The town is lacking water, and
Depp’s character enters a saloon and pretends to be a big shot to
impress the locals where he adopts the name Rango, only for a gang of
baddies to see through his lies. He’s about to be gunned down when a
bird appears. Rango defeats it by accident – to which the mayor (Ned
Beatty) and town make Rango their sheriff. Such begins his hero’s
journey, and as the town’s hero, his greatest responsibility is to
preserve their water (which is kept in a bank). Some moles (headed up by
Harry Dean Stanton) want to steal it, and the next day the town’s last
bit of water is missing. Such forces Rango to get a posse together and
find the moles – not acknowledging he unintentionally helped them. But
the town’s water is not just threatened by the thieves, it becomes
apparent that other forces – including the venomous Rattlesnake Jake
(Bill Nighy) – want to do the town and Rango in.
Rango’s a good-not-great film, though I’m sure it will play stronger to children, and is far and away better than – say – Gnomeo and Juliet.
I’m also happy to see a film that embraces adventure and western as the
narrative for an animated film; it’s never forced kids-y or cutesy.
It’s sufficiently entertaining enough, though it does have a second act
that goes on too long with a quest that is readily apparent not the
final goal, and leads to a situation that puts people in peril stupidly.
Or, semi-spoilers, Rango arrests and puts someone in the position of
being lynched where Rango knows that it wouldn’t be said person’s fault.
The film’s greatest asset is its visual sense. Whatever criticisms
that might be leveled at Verbisnki as a narrative storyteller, there’s
no denying he’s got an eye and the animation provided by ILM is
breathtaking and thankfully 2-D. As novices to the world of animation,
ILM bring something new and exciting to the world of animation – it
feels like a new voice, and doesn’t seem as limited to some of the core
conceits of the genre. They never feel like they’re just making an animated film. Where Pixar, et al are aping Disney, this is aping Leone and There Will Be Blood, and as a purely visual experience the film is a winner.
On exit, my immediate response was that this was Verbinski’s Kill Bill
in the sense that film isn’t just a movie – it’s a movie-movie. To be
fair, children will likely not have seen many of the film’s numerous
reference points – though perhaps later in life they will be struck by
the film’s similarities – but for the cinema fan the references can
drown the film. So much of Rango seems
borrowed or stolen from other films, and it doesn’t feel like Verbisnki
used those quotes as anything but familiarity. With the sluicing and
early water issues I found myself thinking “oh, this is like Chinatown,”
but the further the film goes on the more the narrative hook seems
drawn from the Polanski masterpiece, to which the film makes so explicit
I thought two characters might be related as daughter and sister. And
where early on a music cue seems a riff on Carter Burwell’s score for Raising Arizona
I thought it might a case of Hans Zimmer relying too heavily on the
temp track, when the end credits riff on Miserlou it’s undeniable that
the film is a homage-a-palooza from the top down. Verbinski even makes
room to homage himself. Rango is by nature a poseur and actor, and his
unmasking is a necessary plot point (which recalls A Bug’s Life)
where the only way for Rango to succeed to is to be himself. But the
character has no real name, and there’s no there there. The film – like
the character – suggests the mask is just as meaningful as any truth,
which is interesting but calorically unsatisfying because the
machinations become so labored.
Because – even if it weren’t referential – when the film enters its
third act, the road it’s on and the beats that must be hit before the
film can end get ticked off in a more perfunctory way than necessary.
That’s not to say the oddness doesn’t continue – one of the best and
weirdest sequences in the film makes plain the film’s references while
also seeming to be a callback to Vincent D’Onfrio’s cameo in Ed Wood.
But with such obvious narrative devices it raises a question if
whatever oddness and originality there was may be a leftover byproduct
of not catching where it all came from.
And the film – while still remaining entertaining all things – is no
more or less than a homage piece. Ranking Verbinski’s body of work, it’s
fair to say this is a stronger narrative and better than any of the Pirates
sequels. But it’s also a kitchen sink “I like this” approach that
approximates a lot, but doesn’t do so to become something new – ala the
Talking Heads – or offer commentary on the things it’s stealing from –
ala Girl Talk. The film is good enough to be frustrated with its evident
shortcomings, which will probably be less offensive on multiple
viewings. I thought Verbisnki’s The Weather Man
showed someone who had some edge and knew how to at least work with
good material. Left to his own devices, Verbinski is clever but appears
to be standing on the shoulders of giants. Hopefully this is a goof – a
talented goof at that – to shake off the burdens of the Pirates
sequels, which seem to lose what made the first so appealing. I have no
doubt that Verbisnki is a solid commercial director, but I also get the
impression that – like Rango – there may be no “there” there.