A film that takes place in the American southwest, featuring Johnny Depp in a Hawaiian shirt, and lizards.
I have not described 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Rather, I have described this year’s Rango. But Dr. Gonzo makes an unmistakable appearance toward the beginning of the film. And that is actually why it works so well. The film contains a self-awareness of westerns that makes it more appealing to adults who grew up on the stuff rather than children who think that “Tucco” is a euphemism for cooties. I counted references to Django, the Dollars trilogy, Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, Depp’s previous film Dead Man, and some of the mysticism of El Topo. But rather than feeling like a cheap joke (like the terrible Madagascar) the references here are the result of a passion project and were made to respect the audience. It is one of the better animated films I have seen, one that does not just pander to the whims of children but the intelligence of adults.
The film is about a lizard (Johnny Depp) who dreams of being a hero. Seriously – he stages epic plays in his little aquarium. During a move, the lizard falls out of his family’s car and finds himself somewhere in the American Southwest. Eventually, he comes to a town named Dirt, which is undergoing an enormous drought. Also, it is populated by numerous animals, all of the same size except for a hawk and a villainous snake named Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy). The town is experiencing a drought, with everyone except for the mayor (Ned Beatty, who is depicted as a tortoise rather than a pig) about to lose everything. Local proprietor Miss Beans (Ilsa Fisher) thinks something is fishy, but the others consider her a loon. The lizard, who uses his dramatic flair to take the name “Rango” and convince the towns people he is a western legend, becomes sheriff and tries to solve the mystery of what happened to all the water in Dirt.
Western parodies are underutilized concepts. Mel Brooks made the definitive one in Blazing Saddles (which this film also references in one of Rango’s outfits) but the comedy of the Western has not really been examined. This is weird, as the whole idea is, when done poorly, corny enough to seem like a farce with very little outside influence. It is not just for its elementary school views of good and evil. It is also for the supporting cast in spaghetti westerns that look as though they could be drawn by the staff of Mad.
Rango takes this idea and runs with it. The unnamed lizard is a foolish hero, and the people he meets are such low dim bulbs that it is almost genius to see how they interact. They seem to treat Rango as a God of justice, who can do no wrong. Never mind that even his quest for right leads to even more disastrous results for all involved. The world of the film still does view morality in that traditional sense. Rango, who is a devious con man, is still viewed as a hero because that is what the genre would require. And the various animals are meant to believe him because, well, the people in any John Wayne movies always acted like Wayne’s character was Superman.
Like I said, it was very rare for any film to mine this for comedy gold, especially in this knowing way. But Rango assumes that audiences have seen many westerns, and are able to laugh at that realization. Even the other plot twists, one of which is an exact copy of the climax of Chinatown, is done with this air of knowledge.
The fact is, no child would get these jokes. But animation still helps the project. As I said, these creatures are meant to be caricatures, and their species actually do represent the western theme. Some of the animals are unrecognizable as animals, but are recognizable as western archetypes. Then, when the hawk comes in and is presented as the biggest threat, audiences are reminded that this world is just the sort of fantasy that western addicted animals would create. They all embody their roles so well that I had to remind myself this was all meant to be parodied. Not because it was cheesy, but because it was done so well that it is easy to forget it is all a joke.
Most people, especially in the U.S., still consider animation as something that must be light and cheery and exclusively for children. Rango does not subscribe to this philosophy at all. It is more clever than many R-rated comedies that have been released. Considering that Pixar countered with Cars 2, Rango will probably win the Best Animated Film Oscar this year.