As I entered screen number 13 for Rango, I noticed the plethora of chattering children. And when the trailers flashed one animated film after another, vying for the audience’s adoration with cheap laughs and the presentation of cute characters of varying formations (bunnies, birds, and bears), people chuckled and “Awww-ed” right where the marketing teams wanted. Then Rango started up and this 24-year-old man laughed his way through the picture while children sat in silence and parents thought, “What the f*ck did I bring my offspring to?”
Because this is anything but a children’s film, despite its resemblance to movies like the forthcoming Rio or Hop. It’s an ode to Westerns, whose star is a chameleon who finds himself caught in the web of a conspiracy plucked straight from Chinatown (in the same way A Bug’s Life appropriated Seven Samurai). Rango embarks on a journey of self-definition, with help from an armadillo, the Man with No Name, and a bit of theatrical posturing.
Whereas Pixar films like Wall-E and Up! spend the first half punching you in your tear ducts before spiraling into childish adventuring, Rango gets the adventuring out of the way in the opening acts. It’s funny, but not dumbed down for the elementary school demographic. If your kid doesn’t get a joke about a prostate or a reference to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, too bad. When it really gets up to a gallop it plays this Western tale straight and earns the right to do so.
In most animated films the characters are deliberately fashioned to make you like them (big eyes, cartoonish features), which is an ethic director Gore Verbinski and co. eschewed. The titular chameleon character has an asymmetrical mug and actually looks like a chameleon – not the most cuddly, but it’s part of the reason the film is so cool. It’s in the same family as The Nightmare Before Christmas; gross looking characters may make you pull back initially, but like any good car accident, you can’t help gawking at their monstrousness.
Strangely enough Rango shares another similarity to the ode to the Pumpkin King: its realistic look almost appears to be stop-motion, yet it’s completely computer animated. Therefore, much praise is due to Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) as Rango is its first animated film (previously ILM’s work focused on special effects). Which leads to an interesting conundrum: Given the particularly impressive photo-realism of the alien in Paul and the rich texturing of the characters in Rango (you can feel Rango’s scaliness), a threshold may have been breached in which CGI has finally caught up with practical effects. On the one hand I love practical effects, as they keep the film grounded in reality and make the accomplishments of the effects team noteworthy (since they have to battle material expenses, logistics, physics). On the other, if I’m going to have to see CGI, I’d rather it not be horrendous. One would hope that these films represent a shift in digital animation, but only time will tell.
Rango could easily become the best animated film of the year. I’m regularly opining for a day when Pixar is given a blank check to make a straight drama and offer animated films another avenue besides being anchored to the elementary school crowd.* Rango isn’t exactly that film, but does have the ballsiness to animate characters few kids would like to buy as a toy (though many adults might) and create, as my title suggests, an animated comedy Western for adults. It’s a step in the right direction.
With plenty of visual gags to entertain those missing the jokes regularly flying by (it’s up to you to catch them), arresting visual effects, and a solid dramatic footing, this one’s a keeper. If it takes another big budget film like Pirates of the Caribbean to give Verbinski enough studio credit to make more inventive films like Rango, the price is totally worth it.**
*Not saying that Pixar films are bad, but without the children demographic to bank on it becomes more difficult to get funding for an animated film for the PG-13 or even R audience.
**Verbinski directed the first three Pirates films, but not the fourth one arriving this year.
– Remington Smith