At the end of Rango (2010, directed by Gore Verbinski), my moviegoing companion turned to me and asked: "How much of that did I miss because I don't like Westerns." "It's not just Westerns," I told her. This is another in-jokey animated adventure that plays with the abandoned toys of the Western genre, to which it adds a level of grotesquerie not usually included in such movies. None of the characters could be described as "cute." For the most part, that doesn't really mitigate the fact that this is not terribly original. It's not bad, for all that, though, and some of the in-jokes are of a rarefied, non-kid friendly sort. Certainly, even sophisticated children aren't going to recognize the cameo by Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, or the fact that the main character's visual design is at least partially based on the poster art for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with which it shares star Johnny Depp.
We follow caged chameleon, Rango, as he's bounced out of the back of the car where his terrarium is traveling as he makes his way to the wild west town of Dirt. Dirt, it seems, is having a water crisis. The bank where the inhabitants store their water is running dry, and the spigot where the holy flow of water comes every Wednesday is spewing only sludge. Rango spins a merry pack of lies about who he is, that paint him as a great gunslinger. This is reinforced when he manages to kill the hawk that terrorizes the down with a single bullet. The Mayor of Dirt offers him the job of Sherrif, while Miss Beans, the girl who brought him into town, starts sniffing around the water shortage while she tries to keep from selling off her ranch. When the bank is robbed, Rango and a posse set off to find the perpetrators, a trail that eventually leads back to The Mayor, who inflicts the gunfighter, Rattlesnake Jake, on Rango. Jake, rather than killing him, unmasks him as a fraud. Rango then goes on the equivalent of a vision quest, in which he finds the Spirit of the West, and, simultaneously, himself.
Visually, this is an accomplished movie, one that takes its realistic anthropomorphism into the realm of the ugly. Almost all of the characters in this film are rendered with an unblinking photorealism for what animals actually look like, while imposing slightly human characteristics on them. As a technical accomplishment, this is nonpareil, but I don't know that it serves the movie. Indeed, I think it occasionally trumps what it is depicting. It does manage to escape the valley of the uncanny, but only just, and not entirely; the scene with the Spirit of The West dips into the valley as it depicts the Spirit as an avatar of Clint Eastwood. The need to render action comprehensibly with these characters has curbed some of director Gore Verbinski's more frenzied tendencies toward narrative incoherence--the tendencies that made the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films nigh-unwatchable. It's nice to watch an action film where you can actually watch the action and figure out what's going on. The movie also occasionally indulges in surrealism for its own sake with images like this one:
Tellingly, this is still a second-hand image intended as a post-modern allusion. The aggregate of its inspirations suggests less of a fondness for the classic Western qua Western, but rather a preference for the weird hippie-shit acid Westerns of the 1960s and 70s.
You've seen this story before in dozens of movies. This plot was a staple of the silent comedian, Harold Lloyd (see, for instance, Girl Shy or The Freshman) and has repeated itself over and over ever since. The mechanism that drives the plot--water--is at the heart of a lot of Westerns. Having lived in the West, in Colorado, this strikes a chord. The film's choice of self-references is reflective of this; the villain of the piece is based on Noah Cross, John Huston's monstrous character from Chinatown who also saw the future and the role of water in bringing it about. As for the movie itself, though? Its brand of CG animation seems like a dead end to me. It strikes me as a parlor trick. It's virtuosity for its own sake. I mean, Walt Disney demonstrated that animation was capable of verisimilitude as long ago as Pinocchio, but he abandoned it. With good reason. If verisimilitude was the ultimate be-all and end-all of art, then the king of the artists would be the photographer. Clearly, this isn't the case. The final credits are rendered in a very limited, very well-designed 2-D animation, and as I was walking to my car after the show, I wondered if that style might have suited the movie better. It might have.