From the opening of ‘Rango’, I knew I was in for something special. Four little owls dressed as a classic mariachi band telling the tale and legend of Rango. Automatically, I had hints of a classic Italian Westerns, commonly known as Spaghetti Westerns. Even the title, in the context of the opening, was indicative of the genre, Rango to Django. Also following that hilarious opening, the journey of a mysterious gunslinger coming to a poor town, finds purpose and love while avenging the townspeople from evildoers.
The new film from director Gore Verbinski (The Ring and The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) delivers an a-typical children’s movie about the adventures of an un-named lost chameleon while at the same time pays homage to Italian Westerns. Johnny Depp plays the title role of the chameleon that takes the name ‘Rango’ to inspire fear in the townspeople. The journey starts when the over imaginative chameleon gets separated from his owners in the deserts of the southwest. His search for water leads him to meeting a mysterious armadillo (Alfred Molina), a strange salamander named Beans (Isla Fisher) and the poor people of the town called ‘Dirt’. Mistaken identity has forced the chameleon to take the persona of a wild gunslinger. Rango gains the affections of the townspeople and allows the Mayor (Ned Beatty) to give him the job of town’s sheriff.
The film is mostly about the search for water for this desert town. The one who controls the water, controls the town. The classic dilemma of most Italian Westerns, from ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ to ‘The Great Silence’, ‘Rango’ serves this theme extremely well. Everything from a gun fight at high noon to a railroad being developed as the gateway to the west (in this case, it’s a highway but the metaphor is apt), to white hats and black hats, ‘Rango’ does with the western genre as ‘Kung-Fu Panda’ did with kung-fu flicks. It seems to be a Quentin Tarantino-esque take on genre movies.
Almost to that point, I don’t know if children will enjoy this movie as much as adults. The children in my audience during my screening seemed to enjoy the movie, satisfied with the animation and occasional fart joke but the themes of this film seem to be too dark for its potential audience. The film deals with suicide, death and justice like no other children’s film has in recent memory. It’s not bundled in a typical Pixar, blue skies, wide eyed and cuddly aesthetic, it dives into a dark and ugly world filled with extremely ugly characters. The film feels dry and muggy which lends itself to quest of the film.
What is interesting about this film is its questionable morality. Most children films have a clear-cut hero and villain but in ‘Rango’ the heroes do bad things and, in turn, villains do good things. Actions are based on virtue and rewards for doing the right thing are skewed, “Rango” offers the most thought provoking ending in any children’s film, in recent memory, even ‘Toy Story 3’. This is the type of film that will be written about and examined throughout 2011.
Don’t expect a wild ride like you’ll get with most children movies; ‘Rango’ is far more thoughtful than that, it injects themes and imagery of classic Italians Westerns while narratively like Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ and mixed with questionable character morality. The film does take a bit to get started, the beginning feels a bit clunky but once it establishes its footing then the film takes charge. I don’t know how much children will enjoy this film but film geeks certainly will, which is a surprise coming from a kids studio in Nickelodeon. This is a smart film and it’s worth seeing.