Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Just Desert(s)

Film: Rango
Format: DVD from Schmaling Memorial Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

A bit more than a year ago I watched Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson’s animated film. My issue with that movie is that I have no idea who it was made for. The closest I could come to a potential audience for it is the children of Wes Anderson fans. I’m running into a similar issue with Rango. This is an animated movie about a chameleon who appears in town that’s an odd throwback to the ancient West, but a lot of it seems far more adult than a children’s movie. In fact, I’m pretty sure that this isn’t a children’s movie despite all of the trappings that make it look like one. I’m not bothered by the instances of “hell” or “damn” in the dialogue or the occasional sexual reference that kids might actually pick up on. No, I’m just not sure that there’s much here for a younger audience. At the same time, I’m not sure that a lot of adults would voluntarily choose to watch a film about an animated chameleon.

Anyway, our unnamed chameleon (Johnny Depp) lives in his own little terrarium world where he evidently writes and produces plays of his own design, using the other elements of his cage (including a partial Barbie doll and a wind-up fish) as his other actors. As it happens, his owners are evidently moving. The car hits a bump, the terrarium goes flying, and the chameleon finds himself stranded on a desert highway. The only thing he has to talk to is his wind-up fish and an armadillo (Alfred Molina) that is somehow still alive despite being almost bisected by a passing truck.

Eventually, the chameleon heads off to Dirt, a town populated by birds, frogs, lizards, and other small desert creatures. On his way there, the chameleon meets Beans (Isla Fisher), a desert iguana. Suddenly able to invent himself, the chameleon dubs himself Rango and spins a tale of his past even further west, claiming a number of tales about himself as true. He even manages to stand up to a gila monster named Bad Bill (Ray Winstone). Even more impressive, through luck and misadventure, Rango kills a predatory hawk, and is immediately named as Dirt’s new sheriff.

Dirt has a water problem. In the bank, the local savings is down to just a few days’ supply and the Wednesday didn’t come through this time. Beans is convinced that someone is dumping water out in the desert. The next day, the water bottle is discovered missing and the banker found out in the desert drowned. After a long chase, Rango and his posse catch up to the thieves who admit that they didn’t still the water from the bank; they found the bottle empty out in the desert. Someone has been doing something with the water. And when Rango discovers that the town’s mayor (Ned Beatty) has been buying up all of the land in the area for pennies on the dollar, he’s suddenly got a good idea of what’s going on.

In a lot of respects, Rango is an animated version of Chinatown. The plot is a dead ringer even if there’s no shocking reveal in Rango. It’s not unintentional that the mayor is, while a tortoise, a dead ringer for John Huston and even sounds like him. Underneath all of the desert creatures and Western tropes, Rango is about water and real estate, although it’s done in a way that a reasonably intelligent kid wouldn’t have much trouble following along. That’s not even an issue here--Chicken Run is more or less The Great Escape with chickens, and that doesn’t affect the film’s entertainment value for anyone who doesn’t realize it.

But there’s something that’s just off with Rango. There’s a lot here to like and a lot here that I actually do like. There are some excellent jokes in the film and some very subtle humor, much of which will go over the heads of kids in the audience. I love that the “Spirit of the West” who appears late in the film is really an animated Clint Eastwood driving a golf cart and carrying with him five “golden guardians” that look a hell of a lot like the five Oscars Eastwood has won. And maybe that’s the issue. There’s so much here that will go over the head of most of the people who see it (kids…this isn’t me being a movie snob) that I have to question who it was made for. It’s almost as if Gore Verbinski made a film he knew parents would take their kids to see and he decided to entertain the parents instead of the kids.

And yet for all of the inventiveness, the story is pretty straightforward. Even without the allusions to Chinatown, there’s a lot here that’s pretty predictable. Rango follows the hero’s journey beats pretty solidly, and each new development happens pretty much precisely when we think it will.

I will say that the animation is top notch. Rango isn’t a pretty film by any normal aesthetic standards, but by the standards of animated film, it’s pretty exceptional. Many of the characters are almost hyper-realistic looking despite being animated. If nothing else, it’s a visually stunning movie.

I don’t typically talk about my Letterboxd page here, but in this case, I’m going to. I’ll more than likely end up giving Rango four out of five stars on Letterboxd. It will be one of the most half-hearted four-star reviews I’ve ever put up. There’s a lot here that I like. I just wish I could figure out the damn audience.

Why to watch Rango: A traditional Western with some untraditional elements.
Why not to watch: It’s not sure who it wants to be for.


  1. I wondered—mainly because this starred Johnny Depp in yet another eccentric role—whether this was some sort of Tim Burton production. Burton's aesthetic is often "off" to me: he seems to be demanding that we look past the surface and embrace the weird and the quirky as somehow lovable: Burton's universe is populated with well-intended freaks and monsters. It's not a bad message, understanding that you can't judge a book by its cover, but his execution of the message never really grabs me. In "Batman II," was the Penguin supposed to be a figure of pity? I kind of felt that he was, but I couldn't dredge up much sympathy for him. How about Burton's use of creepy old horror icons to play caring father figures (e.g., Vincent Price in "Edward Scissorhands" and Christopher Lee in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory")? That didn't work so well for me, either. Maybe it's because I'm too damn superficial, and maybe I'm exactly the sort of conventionally minded person that Burton is targeting.

    But anyway, that mini-rant aside, "Rango" was Gore Verbinsky, not Tim Burton. I only ever saw the preview trailer for "Rango," and it had a definite Burton-y vibe. A person can take only so much quirk before it all becomes too much.

    1. Burton is hit-or-miss with me. I either end up liking his films a lot or wishing I had watched something else instead.

      I can see a Burton vibe with this, except that in terms of the animation and look, it's too clean. Burton is all about the dark and shadowy and while not so much about ugly characters, he does love them physically altered.

  2. This movie is for people who like movies. I didn't see it as being for kids at all.

    1. You may be correct on that. It may simply be that I'm uncomfortable being addressed this directly by a director.

    2. You may have a similar concern with Hoodwinked, too, if you ever watch it then. Like Rango it has a ton of movie references (The Thin Man, Fletch, Rashomon, xXx, Star Wars, SNL's Land Shark gag, etc.) , most of which will go over the head of a kid and even some adults who have never seen the films referenced.

      Off the top of my head Rango references a few of Depp's other films (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.), several Eastwood ones, including his appearance (complete with golf cart - another joke for those that know he became Mayor of Carmel, CA where Pebble Beach is located and that he is an avid golfer), Chinatown (as you mentioned), The Court Jester (poison in a chalice), Cat Ballou (the metal nose), Easy Rider (football helmet), and The Road Warrior (which I won't mention to avoid spoiling both movies), and just about every Western where the rich, powerful bad guy is trying to cheat the poor townsfolk/homesteaders.

    3. I did end up liking it. I'm just not completely sure why.

  3. I also really enjoyed Rango, but to your point, I watched it with my kids who didn't like it nearly as much. Quite honestly, I've had the same experience with The LEGO Movie, and even more recently, Minions. They all work for me, but I understand having trouble discerning just who they're for.

    1. I really liked The LEGO Movie as did both of my kids. I haven't bothered with Minions since neither of my girls had any interest, so I can't speak to that one.