Monday, March 14, 2011

Rango: the Chameleon with No Name.

I saw this film by accident. Two friends and I wanted some fun, after a particularly grueling work week. Their first choice of film was Mars Needs Moms, but because of show times, they decided to choose Rango. It was fortunate that we did.

The ad campaign for Rango was fairly opaque. All you saw was this bug eyed lizard -- one of the most weird and uncomfortable animated characters in a long time -- fighting a hawk in the desert. You saw nothing of this main setting for the story, the Old West town of Dirt. I guess the reason why you didn't see it was because, in the mythology of Hollywood, the Western film is dead.

As a child growing up in the 50s, about two thirds of the programs I saw on TV were Westerns. In that conservative time, people couldn't get enough of the solitary hero, someone unconnected to a town or civilization, fighting bad guys. In fact, most of the backlots of Hollywood studios were Western sets. Dress the buildings slightly differently, shoot them from a different angle, and you had a completely different town for next week's episode.

In the 1960s, Bonanza performed the same function for Westerns as The Love Boat would perform for romantic plots, to recycle all the scripts written over the past two decades. And make everybody sick of them. Every single element that appeared in every half hour western in the 1950s was turned into an episode of Bonanza. As a result, Americans got burnt out on westerns. Very few western series survived, unless they had weird or satirical takes on the genre, like The Wild Wild West or Alias Smith and Jones.

But Rango is a genuine western. And of all the reviews I've read of the film, none of them even thought about the Western film that most closely resembles it. That film is Fancy Pants. That was the 1950 comedy with Bob Hope impersonating an English butler who winds up in the old West, working for Lucille Ball. Hope made a lot of comedy Westerns, including Paleface and Son of Paleface, but Fancy Pants was specifically theatrical. And Rango is especially theatrical.

When we first see the nameless chameleon, he's in a glass aquarium, which he has turned into a stage. He performs little skits about being a romantic hero, using only the headless torso of a Barbie doll and a windup plastic fish as his fellow actors. He has never related to another living being. That changes when his aquarium falls out of the car carrying it, through some desert state, and Rango goes wandering through the desert.

As I said before, the character design of this story can only be described as weird. The desert animals that make up the citizens of Dirt are almost like creatures out of a Beatrix Potter story -- that is, if Beatrix Potter had suddenly developed a taste for grunge. The one that impressed/disgusted me the most was the small mole child Priscilla. I think that's her name, but I'm not certain because the photo wasn't captioned and was hard to find. (They didn't want to scare off the customers.) She wears a little schoolgirl dress over her body of black, greasy fur, and peers out under her hat with glowing yellow eyes. And yet, she is a little girl, precocious and charming, even if she happens to have a pair of revolvers with her.

The character design is wild and woolly all the way across the board. One character walks around with his head pierced by an arrow -- through the right ear and coming out the left eye socket. Yes, it sounds disgusting, but in context it works. And that context is important, because if you looked strictly at the plot of the story, it's obviously a standard Western.

Director Gore Verbinski is no stranger to odd projects, since he became famous for Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Upon which he worked with Johnny Depp, who voices Rango. The real stranger on this film is Industrial Light and Magic, the effects house of George Lucas, who did the majority of the animation. To put it simply, it looks good, even if the creatures look weirder than Jar Jar Binks. I can see a bright future for ILM in the animation field, as long as they keep George Lucas from the story, script and dialogue.

This is a Spoiler Alert -- do not read any further in this paragraph if you want to preserve a surprise. The film talks about "The Spirit of the West," and as you would expect, the film eventually shows the spirit. In South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Stan Marsh went looking throughout the film for the Clitoris, and discovered it near the end of the movie. Of course, Rango meets the Spirit of the West. Of all the beings to personify the spirit -- James Stewart, John Wayne, Randolph Scott -- they chose Clint Eastwood, or rather a very exacting CGI version of Eastwood as The Man with No Name. Or rather, the actor dressed as The Man with No Name, in a golf cart, holding a nine iron. It might have been more appropriate if they had actually used Clint Eastwood, but the voice of the character was done by Timothy Olyphant. But there was nothing appropriate about using Eastwood's character from the cynical, Sergio Leone revisionist Westerns, when this film resembled more serious, optimistic Westerns of an earlier time. Heck, Bob Hope as The Lemon Drop Kid would have been more appropriate.

Rango is a very worthy animated film, and the enthusiasm with which it's been reviewed should make it the animated film to beat. The sequel to Cars doesn't feel right to me. Mars Needs Moms has received bad reviews, and its opening weekend was one of Disney's lowest for an animated film. And no matter how many times they run the trailer, does anybody really want to see Smurfs? Although I am no longer a member of ASIFA, if Rango doesn't win at least the Annie award for Best Animated Feature, what Michele and I have said about the rules change in the Academy will be proven true. Especially if Disney buys the Best Picture Annie for Cars 2.