“Well, well, well, the director of the first Budweiser frog commercial and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (listed in order of dramatic excellence), has combined the two and stuck them in a Western atmosphere for yet another CGI-candy-with-barely-enough-of-a-plot-to-hold-together-what-is-essentially-a-string-of-technical-showings-off, eh?”
That’s what you said to yourself upon your first exposure to a trailer for Rango, isn’t it? Well, that or “Yeah, I guess Johnny Depp hasn’t been a chameleon yet. :: audible sigh :: ”
Well, it turns out it was awesome.
We all know, as has been proven in a series of very scientific method-y studies, that 99 percent of CG animated films are cranked out by tremendously, really stupendously talented animators, illustrators, and virtual physics masters who, when some conscientious minority interrupts the sketching party with “Shouldn’t we have a bit of narrative in there, too?”, go “What? Oh, yeah… One of those… Sure, I guess.” BUT not Mr. Verbinski and friends.
In any case, the story seems to actually take more than a 51 percent share of the stock of this film, which is good news for everyone — even the illustrators and animators who, throughout the course of Rango, never once miss a chance to simultaneously frolick and impress, essentially having their technical cake and eating their narrative cake, too.
So my point is it looks good. I won’t go on gawping or fawning or using any other relatively little-used verbs with “aw” in them to attest to the technical coolnesses Rango has to offer. That’s between the film and your eyes.
So let’s stop praising Verbinski (not that he doesn’t deserve it) and start super-praising screenwriter John Logan, because it is Rango‘s story that really merits special attention. It is anachronistic, anthropomorphic, existentialist, slapstick, adventurous, delightfully irresponsible, and arrestingly sober all at once — truly “seven [achievements] with one blow,” which, yes, is a direct allusion to “The Brave Little Tailor,” the classic fairy tale upon which Rango‘s dramatic action is based.
If we’re to make literary or cinematic allusions, though, what makes Rango so goshdarned cool is more than the Grimm-ness at it’s narrative core, but also the Tom Stoppard-ness, the Coen Brothers-ness, and the Brian Jacques-ness that combine to make up the rest. If you haven’t attended Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, read Redwall or watched Raising Arizona, then go do so immediately, after which you should watch Rango and enjoy a small pleasure seizure at witnessing all three genii so artfully combined.
Plus, there abounds a healthy dose of Looney Tunes sensibilities, that I shouldn’t neglect to mention. We’ve got surprising animated “cameos” (Hunter S. Thompson/Raoul Duke, Clint Eastwood/Man With No Name, et al.), metaphysical gags (producing mallets and guns and so forth from nowhere), borderline-offensive stereotypes (morbid Mexican mariachi birds existing on the margin of society, tough Cockney henchmen, etc.), and a protagonist whose only real strength is pure indefatigable pluck.
So this must be a children’s film, right? It’s animated and cartoony, and its world feels distinctly cousinly to that of Mssrs. Chip & Dale and their associated Rescue Rangers. Well, no, not really. Bring a youngster to this and you’re guaranteed to have to recomb his/her hair afterward, wot with a solid 7-maybe-even-9-out-of-10 jokes whizzing consistently over junior’s head. And yet, for weeks, now, every other commercial spot on Nickelodeon shouts, “Hey, kids! Come see this kids movie, Rango — it’s totally for kids!” Of course they did, as Nickelodeon was a primary producer of the project. But still, do we have a marketing ethics problem here? Perhaps from some perspectives, yes, but I might just have to contend.
See, while much of the depth of the story will be too deep for your average pre-teen to easily grasp, and much of the humour too far over his/her head, it will encourage stretching. It’s not a film that speaks to a young person the way he or she might overhear his or her peers tell a story — with exclusively pre-acquired vocabulary and references — but rather as that young person might overhear two older persons relate anecdotes, and that can be very healthy. After all, haven’t most of the truly inspiring, mind-working, horizon-expanding, research-provoking media experiences of our lives been those that aimed above our heads, motivating us to grow up a little? Personally, one of the main reasons I even went to college was to try and figure out what the other two-thirds of the jokes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail meant.
When children are exposed to films that don’t talk down but rather pop a squat and talk as parallely as possible, all while lifting the receiver’s chin to look up at bigger and better things — which happen to, in real life, also tend to be looming, intimidating, challenging things — that’s what helps children look past the fleeting superficialities of their present station and fixate instead on the realities of the world they stand to inherit all too soon. They learn that there are consequences to all actions, that bravery is required to live even the humdrum moments of life, and that assuming responsibility is a noble and good thing to do.
And Rango, with it’s sincere questions about the role of the artist in society, about the harsh realities of being a hero, about the humanity and intrisic worth of the mixed-up and even the criminal, does just that. Its themes are frequently more profound and its jokes too referential or quick for the average youngster to comprehend, but that’s exactly why it’s good medicine — it will challenge them to become above-average youngsters.
Of course, if you’re an adult, you can look at this whole thing the other way around and say, “A meaningful, well-scripted film full of bats and rattlesnakes with machine guns stuck on them? Righteous!” And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.
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