Perhaps one of the more subversive animated efforts to unspool since Wall-E, Rango fearlessly rewrites fundamental parts of the American ethos by tackling the very genre that gave it shape: the western.
An ode to the wild frontier and the brave men (and some women) who ventured to the edge of civilization to make a new start, the western forms the spinal column of the American Dream. It's where the very silhouette of a tall man in a stetson, stalking an abandoned Main Street, can trigger thoughts of heroism, justice and cool masculine restraint.
Rango gives us all this -- and quite a lot more -- in the form of a lizard.
Did you get that? A lizard, the reptile that uses camouflage, regrowable body parts and stealth to survive. Lizards are not lions. They are not symbols of pride, strength or honour. If anything, lizards tend to be synonymous with smarm, spinelessness and second-rate sinister behaviour (because we all know snakes rule the symbolic nest of evil).
Yet, this Gore Verbinski movie (Pirates of the Caribbean) features Johnny Depp voicing the role of a lizard, self-dubbed Rango. When we first meet our scaly-skinned protagonist, he's getting ready for his close-up and offering lines from classic dramas. He's also stuck in a terrarium alongside a plastic palm tree and a wind-up fish.
Rango is a pet-store purchase with no real concept of the outside world -- until a fate-spurring encounter with an armadillo crossing the road causes Rango's whole world to fragment, quite literally. The terrarium falls out of the station wagon, leaving Rango in the middle of the American frontier without a friend in the world, or a single clue about how to survive.
From his entirely artificial world, where he spent his days contriving dramas, Rango is violently re-immersed in the very reality that gave birth to his favourite pastime, where life and death are not grand scenes designed for Act V, but everyday sights.
A disturbing conversation with the run-over armadillo -- who is rendered as the Don Quixote of the piece, complete with Man of La Mancha mutton chops and a Latin accent -- reveals right off the bat just how ambitious and well-read this script really is. Couple that with Depp's central character as a lizard in a Hunter S. Thompson-inspired Hawaiian shirt, and you also get a quick sense of the hipster tone.
What's not immediately apparent is just what Rango's role will be by the final scene, because Rango is a complete poseur. Charming, witty and attractive in his own reptilian way, our lizard turns out to be a complete fraud, who says things in order to win friends and make himself feel important.
Sure, he's nice enough. But he's void of truth, until circumstance forces the little lizard to be honest with himself and others, and redeem the trail of hurtful half-truths he blazed to be a somebody.
The core of the narrative is entirely classical, as it suggests one's capacity to face the truth, and live with the consequences of one's actions, is the true measure of human achievement.
Verbinski ensures these references are obvious, thanks to a Greek chorus of mariachi owls and the odd quote from Shakespeare. But that's just the beginning of the homage parade.
Tipping its brim to every enduring piece of cinematic sagebrush, from Shane and True Grit to Clint Eastwood's entire oeuvre, Rango relives stock scenes from the western catalogue.
At first, there's nothing so subversive in that -- until you realize that a small, vapid lizard with a penchant for gonzo journalism and B.S. stories has assumed the central podium and become the new American messiah.
The movie not only rewrites the western; it does so by carefully deconstructing the entire Hollywood tradition of artifice via the central character of Rango, played somewhat perfectly by a celebrity product of the very culture it mocks.
The layers are dense, and, at times, the movie feels a little sluggish and awkward as a result of wearing so many coats. There may even be a few moments of plain irritation, as the film references for cinephiles begin to push the kid-friendly dialogue into the background.
Chances are, very few people will absorb all the witty little allusions and showbiz in-jokes, but it doesn't really matter. Even though this movie feels like it was created for the pleasure of its creators first, it still works -- just as Roadrunner sketches still worked for the masses, even though they were largely created as wish-fulfillment prophecies for the studio animators desperate to blow stuff up.
Not surprisingly, Rango also pays homage to Roadrunner, because it, too, is part of this cultural tapestry of the west that Verbinksi and Depp pull apart, thread by thread, in this debut release from the newly minted animation wing of Industrial Light and Magic.
It's a rich weave, and it's very smart, but it may be too smart for its own good. Rango's central ideas will translate to the little ones, but it's so self-conscious about being literate and hip, it could lose the casual viewer lacking encyclopedic film knowledge.
For those willing to ride the belly side of this subversive beast, there's endless enjoyment in the execution and the animation itself. The movie looks gorgeous and the digital effects are remarkable, but for a movie that was looking to undo the buttons of convention by stripping the frontier ethos down to its long johns, Rango falls victim to its own ambition -- and comes off feeling a little too contrived for a movie about truth.
Then again, if there were any film to completely understand the paradox of that last phrase, it's this one, which is why Rango wins the duel at high noon -- when the shadows disappear beneath us, and personal integration becomes possible through the ceremonial slaughter of Other.
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