Saturday, December 10, 2011

Movie Review: Rango

Rango is one of those films that wear's its influences on its sleeve. It's equal parts Sergio Leone and Hunter S. Thompson, a point driven home by two separate cameos featuring the Man with No Name & Raoul Duke. But oddly enough, the thing that sprung to my mind when pondering this film was the Cutie Mark Crusaders from My Little Pony (yes, my curiosity about the "Brony" movement got the better of me), in as much as both are based around the idea of building a character as a complete blank slate in search of an identity.

Rango tells the story of a domesticated chameleon with aspirations towards being an actor who finds himself suddenly stranded in the Nevada desert. He is a coward who is completely unprepared for the harsh wilderness, so when he arrives at a small frontier town of desert wildlife, he immediately fabricates a more rough 'n tumble identity for himself, fooling the locals into believing he is a ruthless gunslinger by the distinctly Spagetti western-ish name of "Rango". However he soon learns the the town is imperiled by a outlaw rattlesnake, bandit rats, & a corrupt mayor, and you can guess where it goes from there.

Now admittedly the set-up doesn't sound like anything special, just your basic "becoming the mask" story of someone impersonating a heroic figure, being found out, and improbably bouncing back to achieve genuine heroism in the final act. It's a path well trodden even by other animated films such as A Bug's Life & Chicken Run. But where Rango sets itself apart is in the execution, being a far smarter film that expects far more of its audience than similar films.

Rango's actual name is never revealed, a move that serves two functions. It reinforces the Italo-Western setting by making the protagonist a traditionally nameless wanderer, but more importantly, it serves to illustrate Rango's defining character trait. Rango does not simply lack a name or a history. He lacks any sense of identity whatsoever. As both a chameleon & an self-professed actor he's spent his entire life mimicking others, trying on various persona's for size but never finding one truly his own. And having been isolated in a lizard tank for presumably his entire life, with no one to interact with or "act" for but the inanimate objects he affectionately assigns names to, he's never had a need to discover his own identity.

Now, having been thrust into an unforgiving world he is completely ill equipped to handle, Rango faces the realization of how utterly incomplete he is. He has no idea who he is because he's lived his entire life in a bubble, unable to interact with anything or anyone. Unlike other movies where the third act is all about the hero earning the forgiveness of everyone for his deception in time to save the day, here it's about Rango's self-actualization. He doesn't become the person he was pretending to be. He discovers he always was the person he was pretending to be.

And the film delivers on this notion with incredible maturity & subtlety for something marketed as a children's/family film. No one ever gives a cheesy speech about being "true to yourself", Mufasa doesn't appear in the clouds & say "remember who you are". The closest it comes to outright spelling things out is a (possibly hallucinatory) conversation with "the Spirit of the West" (played by Timothy Olyphant doing a scary good Clint Eastwood impression). Instead it uses a mix of symbolism, surreal dream sequences, and just plain good writing to tell the story of a drifter looking for his place in the world.

Outside of the comedic scenes, the film feels less like an animated family movie than it does an actual Spaghetti Western that happens to be performed by cartoon animals. The music, look, and atmosphere are very authentic to the genre of Western they're referencing and played mostly straight. The villainous Rattlesnake Jake (who is officially one of my favorite kid's film villains ever) might as well be Lee Van Cleef from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and the co-conspiring Mayor evokes nothing so much as the corrupt railway tycoon from Once Upon a Time in the West. It's not a spoof or a parody, it's a loving tribute to the genre in the form of a near pitch perfect recreation. I can only hope that it might serve as a gateway drug to some of the kid's that see this to get into Spaghetti Westerns when they grow up.

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