By Nathanael Griffis
Okay, admittedly, last year’s Oscar-winning animated film Rango is not buried, but I need a reason to write about it, so let’s pretend. It is the kind of film that can easily become buried though, so consider this a preemptive unburying, an attempt to keep the sands of our film apathy away from this little gem of a film.
I was really surprised by this film. After last year was so dry of any truly good animation, I avoided Rango, because everything else I’d seen was so weak. In retrospect it wasn’t so bad: we got a new Winnie the Pooh, and Chico & Rita was a great look at jazz and love. What is really so bothersome is the stumbling of Pixar with Cars 2 and another DreamWorks sequel in Kung Fu Panda 2. We’ve been spoiled and it hurts when reality hits and you realize the gods of animation are fallible.
If you’ve read anything about Rango, you’ve read the increasingly annoying mantra that it’s not for kids. Well, not really — it’s certainly violent, there’s a fair amount of swearing, and the humor is unabashedly adult. Still, it’s full of cartoonish slapstick comedy, so it’s a strange balance. It’s this strange balance that is so refreshing. This is a mature, smart cartoon Western. It still operates within the boundaries of a cartoon, so we’re expected to believe that a chameleon is perfectly capable of surviving being bounced across several car windshields. Yet it’s smart. The humor is directly adult. There is some child-aimed slapstick with burps and explosions, but for the most part you have to be older to catch the jokes.
I’ve heard some critics pointing this out as a flaw, but I found it refreshing. Often in films the adult humor is hidden away, tucked inside innuendo so that parents watching a Disney film can still chuckle every half-hour. In some ways this is just catering to a smaller sect of the audience that watches cartoons. It’s smart marketing to engage parents, but it doesn’t directly benefit the story. Rango runs without and benefits from an uncensored script. They don’t have to follow the Disney rules: they can swear, make Fear & Loathing references, characters can die, and it’s all great. It’s genuinely funny and a startlingly original film.
The film is doing some amazing things with mythos and how a story plays out. It’s not meta exactly, but it continually reminds you that the Western is a created story with expectations, and plays with those. It goes as far as to have a pseudo-Clint Eastwood appear and offer advice to our young hero, who is himself unsure of who he is. It takes this concept of the hero that every young boy dreams of and delivers an extremely relatable protagonist, who is pretending to be just that as he’s thrust into a Western unexpectedly. The whole progression is predictable, but presented in a refreshing way. Not to mention that at times they blatantly tell what is going to happen next. It’s an astonishing script from John Logan that reminds why he’s so good and makes me wonder why he’s not talked about more. Hans Zimmer delivers another awesome score that borrows and plays off of Morricone, Apocalypse Now, and others when it needs to, but still has an unique style all its own.
The entire film feels like a thank-you to all of us film lovers who’ve been tirelessly watching Westerns and caring about the script more than the CGI explosions. Let me put it to you this way: This movie is good enough for me to forgive Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski for the Pirates of the Caribbean Sequels. Definitely take the time to check this one out. Don’t watch it with your young kids, but middle school-aged kids should like it. Something I didn’t even mention is that it’s absolutely gorgeous. This is the first animated film from Industrial Light and Magic, although I’m sure they had a hand in Dinosaur, and it’s a good sign.
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