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Film Review: Rango

Rango (2011; Directed by Gore Verbinski)

It had to happen eventually. At some point, the post-Pixar CG feature animation wave of the past decade and a half or so had to crest and roll back into self-reflexive meta-commentary. All of those anthropomorphic talking animals must necessarily slip the bonds of child-like credulity and approach their full surrealistic potential. The mythic hero-narratives about self-belief and collective action would simply need to be deconstructed before being reassembled with self-aware deliberation.

Interpretive Cactus Impersonation 101

All this finally happens, more or less, in Rango. The feature animation debut of Gore Verbinski, the visionary weirdo director of mass successes like The Ring and the first trilogy of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Rango is what a viewer of scant insight might simply call “strange”. Verbinski and screenwriter John Logan craft a formulaic animated adventure narrative that is a critique of formulaic narrative, deploy predictable thematic tropes while sending up those very tropes, and render the whole crazy self-knowing thing as a vaguely delusional desert mirage. When they aren’t showing their hand, they’re tipping their hats: to westerns classic and spaghetti, to Chinatown, to the twisted comic perspective of Hunter S. Thompson, and to the paintings of Salvador Dali, among (many) other pieces of cultural arcana.

The titular skin-and-bones chameleon (voiced quite brilliantly by Johnny Depp, who hasn’t sounded this engaged in a few years at least) begins the film in a literal glass box, and is repeatedly placed inside frames by Verbinski, purposely constructed as being purposely constructed. He’s a solitary lizard, and an amateur theatrical: indeed, his eventual heroic stranger turn is prefigured as being another of his self-styled stage characters. His progression through the Joseph Campbell checkpoints of the story is marked by a sort-of Greek chorus of mariachi burrowing owls (yes, you read that exactly right), who strum out summations of his quest in Mexican rhythms and seem increasingly put out by Rango’s evasion of the imminent death they predict for him.

Sprung from his limited terrarium reality and left to fend for himself in an unforgiving arid environment, Rango stumbles upon a bone-dry, anachronistic frontier town called Dirt, inhabited entirely by a bizarre coterie of animals squeezed into late-19th-century garb and expressing themselves like supporting characters in True Grit. There’s more than a bit of twisted Coens peculiarity in the often-hilarious dialogue, which unsurprisingly flies right over the heads of the putative target audience of children, given that particular influence. Jokes about puttanesca, conjunctivitis, thespians (“That’s illegal in seven states!”), and removed goiters that “looked like Tony Bennett getting out of the shower” are clearly not meant for the youngins, but for their parents and/or snarky teen chaperones (though I’m not sure who a line like “I once found a human spinal column in my fecal matter” is meant for, really).

The incongruous parallel tones of wacky animated slapstick comedy and sophisticated referential humour can sometimes coexist in the same scene. A bravura sequence in which Rango and his townsfolk allies attempt to repatriate what they believe to be the remainder of Dirt’s dwindling water supply from an army of bat-riding hillbilly gophers (again, an accurate description, if you can believe it) parodies Stagecoach, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and borrows Ride of the Valkyries  from Apocalypse Now, but is also rife with frantic corporeal action. An earlier chase through the alleys of Dirt features an inspired left-field turn gag of Rango sheltering from a pursuing hawk in a discarded vending machine; the raptor pops a coin in the slot and dials up the lizard’s number, before the two face off in a life-and-death licorice tug-of-war. The character design is also delightfully loopy: a villainous outlaw snake (Bill Nighy) has a Gatling gun for a rattle, there’s a Indian War veteran bird with an arrow through its eye, and a rabbit doctor with only one ear.

All of Verbinski’s obvious efforts to make Rango into something truly different in the animation genre don’t quite coalesce, though. The plot arcs towards the formulaic at just the predicted juncture, and Logan’s script abruptly stops informing us that it’s aware of this formula at just the wrong time. We are at least provided with Rango’s meta meeting with “the Spirit of the West” (a ringer for Clint Eastwood voiced by Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphaunt) at a crucial moment, complete with alabaster chariot (a golf cart), mock-heroic pronouncements, and supernatural suggestions; when Rango asks him if they are in heaven, the Spirit replies with one of script’s most gobsmacking dialogic oddities: “If it were, we’d be eating strawberry Pop-Tarts with Kim Novak.”

In the last moments of the film, just as Sheriff Rango makes ready to ride into the stereotypical sunset, a precocious Dirtonian minor (voiced by Abigail Breslin) provides a canned academic summary of the film’s self-conscious theme that sounds like a direct quote from the aforementioned Campbell: “In order to satisfy the needs of the collective, the hero must abandon the self and solidify his image as an icon.” Had the last act or two of the film preceding this statement not forsaken this species of savvy self-reflexivity for generic plot turns, perhaps this last-ditch swing for the meta-commentary fences would resonate more. As it is, though, Rango grants more than free rein to magnificent surrealist imagery and cultivates a distinctly odd sense of humour, and is far smarter about even its least original elements than most films of its type. I’m not sure if it’s brilliant or just deeply cracked, but it’s worth judging that for yourself, if you can handle it.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. January 8, 2013 at 8:45 pm
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