I assume the vast majority of readers of my fine (ahem) blog are aware of the hero’s journey. It’s the basic structure of telling a story of a character, in any medium, that goes from relatively basic beginnings to being a hero of the people. Star Wars did it, Flash Gordon did it, the god damn batman did it. It’s one of the most oft repeated character arcs there is. Rango is literally a film about that arc and how much of it is in the control of it’s protagonist. It is also a kids film. A kids film that is about the art of telling stories. Also I liked the bit where he ate the fly…
Rango (Voiced by Johnny Depp) is a lizard living in a box. A box that doubles as his stage. His only friends are a wind up toy fish, a plastic tree and the headless, legless and singularly armed torso of a Barbie doll. She’s topless though lads so WA-HAY!!! Rango lives in his head imagining all the things he could be and acting them out like any lizard living on his own in a box may well do if he were a little lonely/unhinged. After a brief epiphany that conflict is missing from his life (Conflict = Drama folks, remember that) Rango wishes for an event of ironic happenstance to pull him from the doldrums of his life and to send him on his way to adventure. His wish is soon granted as the drivers of the vehicle his tank is on the back of swerve to avoid an animal on the road and which in turn sends Rango and his tank flying off the back and into the desert road, not before landing on the wind-shield of Hunter S Thompson though. Yes this is that sort of film. The sort of film that makes the reference, except unlike a lot of modern comedies, Rango does so with grace and style.
Every single minute of the film is crafted to be a love up to various other masterworks of cinema. The colour scheme is entirely Spaghetti Western with it’s dark and light contrasts and deep focus angle shots. The villains scheme is straight out of Chinatown and so many references are made to that particular film that I was half expecting a certain scene to be recreated between Rango and his love interest Beans (Voiced by the lovely Isla Fisher). Rango even chooses his own name, leading the audience to realise that he is a literal lizard with no-name, a moniker that will have a nicely done parallel later in the film. Every archetypal character of the Western is represented in some form with such a unique eye for detail that you instantly know what each character represents. That doesn’t stop them being entirely enjoyable though.
One thing this film does very will is design. Characters have a quirky grotesqueness about them. They manage to hit that exact point between ugly and lovable. It’s the small details such as the kink in the neck and the oddly sized eyes of Rango, for example, that give these characters that little bit extra layer of lovableness. Speaking of the kink in the neck and the eyes, take a look at the poster for Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas and tell me that wasn’t what they had in mind when they created Rango. To add to that the scenes are played out with an incredible precision for set up and pay off. One stand-out scene involves a typical cartoon charade to trick some bandits into capture that leads to one of the most dynamic chase sequences seen in animation since Lupin the 3rd raced along a cliff with counterfeit notes billowing into the wind. If there’s one thing I would have liked to have seen from the film’s design it would be a uniformity to the scale of objects. Occasionally you’ll see human sized objects being used as props, for example a water cooler bottle as a vault for the towns water supply. Other times characters will be using regular glasses scaled down to their size. Maybe we aren’t meant to think about that but after seeing Arrietty use human bean sized objects in her miniature world you kind of expect a similar level of detail from this Oscar winning film.
Rango’s story is told as smoothly as can be expected and manages to fit in not only a fair smattering of adult humour but also some adult themes. It’s rare, these days, for a children’s film to actually deal with death, religion and corruption in such a frank manner. I honestly get the impression that at no point during the films production were director Gore Verbinski or Writer John Logan thinking about making “just” a a kids film. It’s that attitude that separates films such as this and Pixar’s best from the likes of Shrek and, well, Pixar’s worst. By which I mean Cars.
Rango is a film that kids will enjoy for it’s gross moments and funny slapstick whilst parents will be drawn in by and intelligent and well written story. A story that has the deftness to challenge viewers of all ages. That is what makes a great kids film. It has to have a little something for everyone so that when those kids grow up they can pass it on to their little financial drains of despair… ahem… and still be able to enjoy it themselves on a new level. To add to that it is one of the most visually stunning CG animated films ever made, surpassing even Pixar’s work in the sheer level of detail. Also, no 3D. Apparently Gore Verbinski fought tooth and nail to not do 3D and the film’s all the better for it.