Sunday, September 2, 2012

Rango, the Tiny Lizard with a Lot of Gumption

Rango is an animated film that tells the story of a little lizard who dreams up and acts out big adventures in his small glass tank. But when the moving van swerves unexpectedly on a highway through the big open country of the West, the tank flies out of the truck and shatters to pieces on the road. Our little lizard friend is abandoned and, after meeting with an armadillo on a spiritual journey to the other side of the road, he goes in quest of water to a town called Dirt. His first encounter, just outside of town, is with a girl lizard called Beans (so named because "My daddy plum loved baked beans."). Once in the town, he puts on his greatest act yet as Rango, a no-nonsense gun-slinger right out of an old Western movie. He quickly wins over the town with his tough-guy act and is appointed sheriff. But being sheriff isn't all about tough talk -- Rango has to figure out the mystery of the town's drought, stave off an impending rattlesnake attack, and track down some bank thieves. Of course, he has help along the way - including the feisty Beans and a host of humorous characters amongst the townsfolk, who are a hodgepodge of small animals.

This Nickelodeon movie came out last year and although I had wanted to see it at the time, I finally got around it to when some family from out of state was visiting. After having suggested the movie for our outdoor movie night (an annual favorite pastime), I was a little nervous at first as the movie was a bit slow going in the beginning. It picked up though and became very funny as well as action-packed and holding a mystery to be solved. Rango held the attention of both kids (of all ages) and adults alike, which probably isn't a huge surprise given that it won an Academy award for the best animated picture as well as numerous other awards. Like with many other animated features, Rango works on two levels - there's the basic storyline and slapstick jokes aimed at children while there are also a number of Easter eggs and quips that appeal only to adults. For instance, there are numerous references to classic Western movies, and I have to admit some of these probably went over my head as well as over the heads of the children and teens in our audience. However, a brief reference to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Johnny Depp also starred, had me cracking up.

Rango boasts a considerable amount of Hollywood talent. For starters, it teams up director Gore Verbinski and actor Johnny Depp once again (as with the first three Pirates of the Caribbean), with Depp spot on as the voice of Rango. Amongst the other talented cast members are Alfred Molina, Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, and Ned Beatty. Several of the voice actors, including Depp, play more than one character, which can surely be no easy feat.

However, there are a few down sides to this movie. As I mentioned earlier, it started a bit slow but then picked up a great deal with additional comedy and also some adventurous moments. But to be honest, I actually got bored during some of these extended action-packed sequences. This is not a fault of Rango only; I find that as I age, I am much more interested in plot and characterization, resulting in me becoming bored with yet another long scene devoted to some sort of fight and/or chase, which will inevitably end with the good guys winning. A second problem, and one that I find more troubling, is that it's debatable whether Rango passes the Bechdel test - if it does, it's by the skin of its teeth, which isn't a great sign of a movie being female-empowering. Likewise, it has some troubling portrayals of non-white ethnicities as well. Both of these issues may be related to the fact that Rango is inspired by - and parodying - old Western movies. For instance, take a scene like the one in which Rango is leading a posse into the desert to search for the bank robbers. One member of the posse, named Wounded Bird, is very much meant to be playing the role of the mystical American Indian. I rifled at first at the idea of this character, but then these lines came out as Wounded Bird is releasing some feathers into the wind:

Rango: I see you're communicating with the great spirits.
Wounded Bird: No. I'm molting. It means I'm ready to mate.

It's incredibly clever and turns a stereotype on its head. Still, I'm not sure how much - and what exactly - young children are absorbing when they see and hear from characters such as these. There's also a framing device used in the movie, once which breaks down the fourth wall a bit, in the use of a mariachi band of owls. Again, perhaps it's a bit stereotypical, but it's also very funny as the mariachi band frequently employs dramatic irony that is quite wrong. For instance, they keep predicting Rango's demise and death at various points only to later have to shrug and say they were wrong that time. There's also this great scene:

Rango: Now... we ride!
[whip cracks; Rango stops and looks to his right, puzzled]
Rango: [the band of mariachi owls stands a ways away with their instruments, waiting; Rango shouts to them] That means we're riding now! This moment.
[another whip is heard and the owls start playing the background music; everyone is riding roadrunners in the next cut

All in all, I like the addition of the mariachi band, but I again wondering about what take-away children derive from their presence. And, of course, the entire West (or at least what we get to see in this film) is one giant stereotype based on old movies, with a saloon being the most crowded place in town, a main dirt road for shooting duels, and so forth and so on. Even though the rest of the world seems to be in the 21st century, the town of Dirt is stuck sometime in the 1800s or early 1900s at best.

Still, I found this movie entertaining enough to enjoy it at the time and I would not object to watching it again, especially to see if I caught more of the in-jokes and Western references a second time around.

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