Rango (2011)

I picked this to watch as an easy way to ease back into our regular routine of watching films and writing about them after returning from holiday. Animated features are usually good for this as they aren’t too demanding and please my wife but my wife ended up not liking it, probably due to a combination of not getting the humor and not really liking Westerns much.

The protagonist is a chameleon kept as a pet by humans in a glass aquarium until an accident on the highway frees him. He meets a variety of characters including a mysterious armadillo and a female iguana named Beans until he reaches the town of Dirt. The town is beset by a lack of water and, feeling intimidated by the townsfolk, he takes on the persona of Rango, a tough gunslinger from out west. After the usual series of misadventures, the townsfolk believe his tall tales and he becomes their new sheriff charged with protecting the dwindling reserve of water at the bank. Of course, it’s obvious to the audience that the true villain of the story is the mayor who has contrived a method of hoarding the town’s water in order to drive down property prices.

Like other cartoons with anthropomorphic animals, this film requires you to buy into the not always sensible worldbuilding and consciously put aside questions like why the animals, in a world in which humans don’t seem to realize that they are sapient, care about property rights, or how they come to possess tiny manufactured goods. Rango further requires that you understand that this is a Western film and go along with its tropes, including the preposterous fact that a rattlesnake many times larger than a lizard can be threatened by his tiny pistol. If you’re willing to play along, this is an enjoyable romp with some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in an animated feature. I really liked how they transposed the traditional Western genre onto these desert animals and milked it for all it’s worth, with showdowns, tumbleweeds, galloping scenes, a hanging scene, and much more. I also had a lot of fun recognizing specific references to films like High Noon, Chinatown and even Johnny Depp’s own performance in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Another thing that leads me to liking this film is that although it’s still solidly aimed at being family entertainment, I found it a touch more adult than the usual fare. The specter of death that hangs over the characters feels menacing and part of Rango’s backstory is that he seems to be slowly going insane due to his isolation as a family pet. It does eventually end up becoming a more conventional animated feature but for a while at least it feels like something totally crazy and wild and I really appreciated that. I’d say that director Gore Verbinski has created a film that’s exciting enough for the masses, yet smart enough and replete with cinematic references to please serious film aficionados. One critic called it the cartoon version of a Quentin Tarantino production and I think that’s about right.

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