Let me begin by saying that you have one of the most appropriate name-to-genre matches in the history of cinema. The word “Rango” when spoken by an ever expanding and consistently imaginative group of dusty desert characters sounds so natural, so honest and necessary, that it’s a miracle this word and name have gone unused in the Western genre for so long.
And now that I have gotten that shallow-yet-deserved praise out of the way, I can get to the bare bones of my feelings for you, which is to say that I can say how much I like and admire you, even as I wonder if you know what you are trying to be. Your existence, as confused and mysterious as it is, is heartening to me because it lets me know that somewhere out there, directors and producers are working together to make sure that creativity is not left to founder and die like a chameleon in a desert.
So much to praise and ponder, it feels to me that the only place to begin (aside from your name obviously) is with your visuals. You are, and I say this from a place of love and affection, one of the dirtiest, ugliest and most all around beautiful movies I have ever seen. This may sound like a contradiction, until one realizes that our world is a rough, coarse, hard-scrabbled place. You most definitely reflect the nature of the world with a fidelity and artistry that is truly breathtaking. Scratched, dirty glass reflects the sun in a makeshift wind chime with the same loving care most animations would give to a rainbow.
Similarly, your character design retains this spirit of fidelity to a strange sort of reality with reptilian and rodent characters whose skin and scales are realistically flawed and grimy. Eyes are exaggerated, scars are deep and ugly, and teeth are sharp and menacing. Each character has a surreal sense of exactitude that I find at once admirable, alluring, and off putting. You are, after all, the only kids’ movie I know of that features a character with an arrow in his eye which protrudes out of the back of his skull.
And so, Rango, we come to the real core of my conflicted love for you. There is no doubt that you are a fantastic film, but I feel as though you were either pitched or marketed in a way that was wholly in opposition to your character as a film.
You were pitched to me as a heartwarming children’s tale about a loveable little lizard saving a town, and yet at the heart of you resides a story about existential questions of identity, social and cultural pressures and expectations, as well as a water-based land grab scheme straight out of Chinatown. Not that I mind at all; I have no qualms with any of these story elements, even your bizarre and reality-bending moments of walking plants and talking toy fish and dead but not really dead armadillos. I also don’t mind the strange cameo of the ‘Spirit of the West,’ because on some bizarre level it made a lot of sense to me. It just feels like I had the rug ripped out from under me, which is always pleasant, but in this case didn’t feel entirely planned on your part.
Is this your fault? No, I don’t think so. I imagine everyone who set down to make you knew exactly what they were doing. Did you have to lie to the production company about your youth-appeal so that they would not try to squelch your true nature? Perhaps. Did this bleed ever so slightly into your DNA? Maybe. Did marketing take a story of profound oddity and try to package it as a lighthearted adventure? Definitely. As such, your whole runtime felt like a grand and cerebral parable forced to wear the hat of a kids’ film.
Did any of these conflicts detract from your merits as a film, though? Not at all. And that is the real truth of the matter, the only thing that really counts. Even without the small shocks at the transgressions against your roots as an ostensible ‘kids’ film you stand as a ready example of the possibilities of animation that until now only Pixar had truly tried to push. An audacious, energetic, original film that looks all the other easy, pandering animations of the last few years in the eyes and says, “Draw.”
That’s what you are, Rango. No need for the Spirit of the West to tell you that.
Brian J. Roan