Rango is quite possibly the grittiest kids movie I have ever seen. That statement holds a couple of meanings. Firstly, in a literal sense; Rango is a textural masterpiece. It blurs the line between real and animated, and were it not for the Lizard walking on two legs that dominates the frame most of the time, one could not be blamed for mistaking one for the other. The dust of the mojave desert permeates everything in the movie. Everything is sort of faded, and dried up. In the desert, water is like currency, and the town bank is low on funds.
The movie opens with the Lizard standing in a pale, austere, and almost surreal landscape. He seems to be directing/acting in a play, starring him, a wind-up goldfish, a palm tree who’s acting he calls “wooden”, (get it?). Suddenly, the car on which he rides hits a bump, sending his glass cage flying. It shatters on the side of the road. The Lizard stands up, and molts several times in the hot sun. The symbolic message is clear; the Lizard’s world as he knows it has come crashing down around him, and he has shed the skin of who he once was. He is a tabula rasa now, an empty book, with story yet to be written. His destiny awaits.
The Lizard makes his way to a dusty old western town, fittingly named dirt. Upon arrival, he wonders how to portray himself, comically imitating the peculiar walks of many of the different town residents. In typical western fashion, he walks slowly into a saloon. The creatures inside turn and look at him skeptically. When asked who he is, the Lizard spins a spectacularly tall tale. He is Rango, an outlaw from the west. He killed the notorious Jenkins Brothers with one bullet…all seven of them. The tales of derring-do Rango tells bring the residents of dirt to elect Rango sheriff, just as a town-wide water crisis is beginning. Rango must help find water to save the town, and prove to himself that he really is the hero that he pretends to be.
Throughout the story a mariachi quartet of owls follows Rango, morbidly predicting his death. The motif of death is extremely prevalent throughout the movie. One particularly interesting shot shows the narrator owls standing atop a sun bleached skull. Near the beginning, Rango has a dream, that he is drowning; ironic, given his current geographic placement, but the point is made. Rango is essentially doomed. This makes Rango’s avoidance of fate’s metaphorical bullets that much more compelling. Near the beginning, Rango, and a toad — one a desert greenhorn, one a seasoned veteran of the mojave — are pursued by a hawk. Logic points to the death of Rango. He is inexperienced, tired, and he can’t even blend in properly. Instead, it is the toad that is plucked from the ground.
Refreshingly, once and a while, director Gore Verbinski reminds us that this is in fact a work of fantasy. At one point, while the characters are traversing a tunnel, a huge eye opens, dominating the entire frame, speaking to the inconsequential nature of the creatures’ existence. It also shows a “david and goliath” mentality, that is echoed in the film’s climax, in which Rango stands off against a masterful gunslinger, who is way out of his weightclass.
Returning to the beginning of this review, Rango is quite gritty, in subject nature. It skirts just on the edge of plot maturity, while still being suitable for children. It is surprising that the team went for a PG rating, and not a hard PG-13, but I’m glad they did. There is a juxtaposition of darkness, and Johnny Depp doing his best Kermit the Frog voice that works quite well, producing hilarious results. Bottom line: Rango is a solid animated feature, that treats viewers to some excellent vistas, and surprisingly riveting action. While many of the movie’s more nuanced elements will sail over young one’s heads like so many tumbleweeds, this is an enjoyable experience for the whole family.