Rango (2011)

rango

“I think the metaphor broke my spleen.”

The Scoop: 2011 PG, directed by Gore Verbinski and starring Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina and Bill Nighy.

Tagline: Blend in.

Summary Capsule: Stage-struck household pet meets drought-struck slightly-new Old West. Weirdness ensues.

Deneb’s rating: My mind, she is blown. And I am now very thirsty.

Deneb’s review: It’s a funny thing about westerns – they don’t go away. People have been saying that the western is dead for several decades now, but it just keeps sitting up in bed and embarrassing the doctors. For a dead genre, it’s mighty perky-lookin’.

My guess is that westerns will never die out completely, for the simple reason that everyone knows them. Even if you’ve never seen a western in your life, you still kinda have, if you get my meaning. They’re a part of the American national character that by now is practically omnipresent. We can say they’re corny and outdated, we can call someone a “cowboy” and mean it as an insult, we can steer so clear of them we drive off the road, but let’s face it – by now, westerns are part of the national (and, to some degree, world) mythology. And while I wouldn’t exactly call myself a fan, I’m gaining a new appreciation for them these days, because if there’s one thing I am a fan of, it’s mythology.

Some people, it seems, are picking up on this particular aspect of the genre, and taking full advantage of it. Forget your creaky six-gun sagas – increasingly, the western is becoming a strange and mysterious thing, as more and more writers and directors are delving into its depths and coming up with brand new takes on it, often ones that’d make John Wayne do a spit-take.

Which brings us, inevitably, to Rango. (Otherwise known as the film I wanted to review for Weird Western Week, but couldn’t, since the DVD wasn’t out yet.)

Rango starts out, appropriately enough, with Rango (Johnny Depp), or rather, the guy who will eventually become Rango. He’s not your typical western hero – he’s not even human. In point of fact, he’s a pet chameleon with a theatrical bent, who spends his days stalking around his terrarium and acting out little mini-dramas with himself as the star. It’s not exactly the most dynamic of existences, but he seems to enjoy himself well enough – the main problem he has is a lack of identity. He may have a splendid time acting out his plays, but in between personas, who is he really? He’s not quite sure.

Therefore, it’s somewhat of a blessing in disguise when his owners’ car hits a bump in the road and sends his little world flying out to shatter on the highway – although you’d have a bit of a difficult time convincing him of that. You see, he now happens to be stranded right in the middle of the Mojave desert, without direction, purpose, or, more importantly, survival skills. A more inhospitable place would be difficult to imagine. He needs to find a way out of this mess, and quickly – this being a desert and all, he’s startin’ to feel just a wee bit dehydrated.

Through trial and error, and a helpful hint from a mystic armadillo (Alfred Molina), he eventually finds his way to the small western town of Dirt – the small western animal town of Dirt, that is, populated by all kinds of seedy-lookin’ critters amongst whom our protagonist kinda stands out. It’s not good for your health bein’ a tenderfoot around a bunch o’ ornery hombres, and he figures out pretty quickly that he’d better either fit in or ship out.

Fortunately, our boy’s thespian skills have not deserted him. Improvising on the fly, he comes up with a whole new identity for himself, that of Rango, a badass gunslinger driftin’ through town. He’s convincing enough that he soon has the whole town believing it, and after a rather spectacular display involving a hawk and a whole lot o’ luck, he gets the title of Sheriff bestowed upon him.

This may or may not be a good thing. Sure, he’s got a nifty outfit and the hero-worship of the whole town on his side, but there’s a rather pressing reason for that. See, the people of Dirt need a hero right now, because they’ve got something in common with our hero – they’re thirsty. Water is both sustenance and currency around these parts, and lately their source of it has been drying up. Unless someone can figure out just why and how this is happening, Dirt is going to dry up and blow away – and meanwhile, there’s the problem of Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) and other such owlhoots to deal with.

The whole thing’s rather a lot for one little lizard to handle. He’s doing all he can to keep on top of things, but it’s only a matter of time before they find out he’s a fake – and at that point, what’ll he do?

OK, first things first – Rango is one weird mammajamma of a film, to the point where it’s very difficult to categorize. Sure, the basic plot is that of a western, and it plays homage to any number of the genre’s tropes and clichés, but really, this flick is far too bizarre to be simply categorized as one. What with all the freaked-out imagery, philosophical meanderings and mystical elements which may or may not be intended to be taken literally, Rango is more like some variety of fever dream or vision quest than a straight example of any genre.

And therein lies the brilliance, because make no bones about it, this is a brilliant little movie. Played straight, it would have been good – played twisted and contorted, it sticks to the brain like glue. If you can get this movie out of your head anytime soon, I’ll be quite surprised.

One good step in that direction is the portrayal of Dirt and its inhabitants. These are some gnarled, scraggly-lookin’ varmints we’re dealin’ with – they may technically be cartoon animals, but we ain’t talkin’ Mickey Mouse here. These critters look like they’ve spent their lives in the middle of a desert – something all too often averted in these sorts of films, where the filmmakers tone down and prettify such types of characters so they won’t scare off the family audience. As a result, while the inevitable recruitment of them as allies works well enough, the initial hostility just isn’t believable. Rango doesn’t have that problem – its supporting characters are, from the word go, clearly tough cookies accustomed to hardship and violence, and while they certainly become more vulnerable and sympathetic as the film progresses, they never really lose that initial edge. You would not like to get on their bad side, and this emphasizes both Rango’s predicament and their own – if it’s a problem these hardballs can’t handle, then it’s no laughing matter, and if Rango can’t solve it, he’d better look to his laurels, ‘cause it’s unlikely they’ll be pleased with him.

Interestingly enough, a good chunk of the more memorable of said hardballs seem to be female. This would seem to be a contradiction of the normal laws of the western, which generally relegate women to the roles of housewives or grieving widows. Well, not here. To start out with, we’ve got Beans (Isla Fisher), Rango’s kinda-sorta-maybe love interest, with a fiery temper, a passel of unresolved family issues, and a faulty “defense mechanism” which… I’m not going to tell you about, ‘cause it’s funny, and I don’t want to ruin the surprise. Then there’s Priscilla (Abigail Breslin), a deadpan mouse-child with a morbid outlook, who would probably be played by a young Christina Ricci in real life. Regarding the bit players, there’s Angelique (Claudia Black), the Mayor’s secretary, who is… disturbingly attractive, for a furred vulpine creature. I’m not even going to go into the frog saloon girl (why does a frog have boobs? Why?! Madness, I say!). Hell, even Rango dresses in drag for one scene. It’s kind of subversive, in a weird way.

Right, Rango. What about Rango? Well, he’s voiced by Johnny Depp, so you can figure going in that he’ll be well-performed – and sure enough, he is. More than that, though, he is really astonishingly deep for someone who could so easily have turned out to be a one-note character. Sure, he’s basically your usual naïve fish-out-of-water type who gets in over his head, but there’s more to him than that. He may be naïve, but he’s not stupid or bumbling – he has skills and intelligence, they’re just not necessarily the right ones (or the conventionally right ones, anyway) for the situation he’s in. Really, his character is rather poignant – he’s improvising desperately throughout the whole film, and when he inevitably comes across a situation he can’t handle (at first, anyway), you can’t help but feel for the poor guy. His whole persona is a fragile house of cards, and when it’s toppled, what’s left? He doesn’t know, and therein lies the movie.

As for the others? Well, there’s a reason why I began with the females first – most of the others don’t really stand out very much. Not visually, mind you – that’s one of the film’s virtues, in fact; all characters, no matter how minor, are visually distinct from all the others – but most of the townsfolk are just, well, townsfolk – they get maybe one line, and that’s it. There are a few standouts – Spoons and Waffles (Alex Manugian and James Ward Byrkit) get some good lines – but for most of the cast, keeping track of who’s who takes some doing. You’re not likely to forget who Rattlesnake Jake and the Mayor (Ned Beatty) are, but then, they’re the villains. Otherwise… yeah.

Finally, a word must be said about the animation – it’s puuuurty. I mean, I know realistic animation is pretty much par for the course these days, but this is really impressive. If you’re a fan of photorealism, some of the desert background will knock your socks off. It’s good stuff.

So, in conclusion, what do I think of Rango? Is it a masterpiece? Well, no, not exactly – it’s a bit too uneven for that. Is it good? Sure is – didn’t you see me use the word “brilliant” up there? Is it strange as all get-out and hypnotically weird? Sure as shootin’, podnuh.

Basically, if you like Johnny Depp and/or westerns, you will probably like this movie. If you’re a fan of movies that make you blink and go “wait – what?” you will definitely like this movie. Whatever you’re a fan of, I’d say Rango is worth at least one look. After all, it’s already part of mythology.

“Hi, there! This is a hijacking! I’m here to make you feel happy! It’s a HAPPYjacking! It’s… oh, come on now, put down that gun. Someone needs a hug…”

Intermission! 

  • One rather refreshing aspect of the film in these PC times is that they have not watered down the sorts of things that wild western folks actually did. As such, they drink booze (or so it’s implied; that cactus juice packs a wallop), they sleep around (again, implied, but those saloon girls ain’t there for nothin’), and – gasp! – they smoke (although Angelique seems to just carry around a cigarette holder as a fashion statement). It’s good to see a family movie that doesn’t pander to us regarding these things – they’re not focused on, but they’re there, nonetheless.
  • During the opening sequence on the highway, Rango has a brief encounter with Raoul Duke, the main character from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (who Johnny Depp also played in the movie version, and who Rango himself is partially based on). The scene would seem to be a direct reference to the “f***ing reptile zoo” sequence in FaL where he worries about his reptilian hallucinations “tearing us to shreds”, as well as to the famous “bat country” sequence from the beginning.
  • The movie makes multiple references to famous westerns and western-themed movies. I’m not well-versed enough in the genre to have caught all of them, but the character of Rango himself is evidently a reference to The Shakiest Gun in the West, which features a similarly out of place character, and the hawk’s metal-tipped beak would seem to be referencing Lee Marvin’s villain with the false nose from Cat Ballou.

Groovy Quotes:

Rango: (singing) A monkey got a cracker, his mother was a slapper, she’ll be comin’ round the mountain in the RAAAIIIN!

(Rango ducks into outhouse)
Priscilla: What’s he doin’ now?
Waffles: I… I think it’s a Number Two.

Rango: The stage is waiting – the audience thirsts for adventure.

Balthazar: What is that?
Ezekiel: I thinks they’s thespians!
Balthazar: ‘Thespians’? That’s illegal in seven states!

Rango: (to a model palm tree) Victor, you were wooden! There – I said it.

Priscilla: Can I have your boots when yer dead?

Rango: Why don’t you just wait until there are no cars coming?
Roadkill: It’s not so easy as it looks.
Rango: What?
Roadkill: It’s a metaphor.

Mariachi owls: (singing) As the birds pop his eyes, the sun bleaches his bones; see his entrails get scattered, watch him lose his cojones, ai-ai…!
(Rango gives them a dirty look, they stop.)

Rango: Oh, hey – proboscis.

Waffles: I am sensing hostility!

Rango: I think the metaphor broke my spleen.

Rattlesnake Jake: I’m gonna blow so many holes in you your guts will be leakin’ lead!

Rango: So no, my hairsome little rodent friend, I am not from these parts. Ya might say I’m from everywhere there’s trouble brewin’ and hell waitin’ to be raised. Ya might say I’m what hell’s already raised up. Name’s… Rango.

Rock-Eye: Get out of there! I’m going to strangle your huevos!

Rango: (Spanish accent) I couldn’t help but notice you noticing me noticing you.

Beans: Git yer slimy webbed phalanges off my boots!

Rango: Is this heaven?
Spirit of the West: If it were, we’d be eatin’ PopTarts with Kim Novak.

Priscilla: You’re a stranger. Strangers don’t last long here.

Beans: …And until the people of Andromeda 5 return him safe and sound, I will not sell my ranch!

Rango: Crunchy-creamy-cookie-candy-cupcake.

Spoons: What’sa matter? You missin’ yer mommy’s mangoes?
Rango: As a matter of fact, I am – but not as much as your daddy’s cookin’!

Rango: So what’s your name?
Beans: Beans.
Rango: That’s a funny kinda name.
Beans: What can I say? My daddy plumb loved baked beans.
Rango: Well, you’re lucky he didn’t plumb love asparagus.
Beans: Wh-what’re you sayin’?
Rango: I mean I, I enjoy a hearty puttanesca myself, but I’m not sure that a child, uh, would, uh, appreciate the monicker.

Spoons: That wasn’t altogether unpleasant!

Rango: (Spanish accent) You know, the womens find me uncomfortably good-looking.

Mr. Merrimack: Beans, you’ve been like a niece to me, ever since your daddy…
(Beans glares)
…did not fall drunk down a mine shaft.

Lead mariachi owl: And so the stranger basks in the adulation of his new friends, sinking deeper into the guacamole of his own deception.
Violin-playing owl: When is he going to die?
Lead mariachi owl: Soon, compadre – soon.

Roadkill: Enlightenment. We are nothing without it.

Bad Bill: If I see your face in this town again, I’m gonna slice it off and use it to wipe my unmentionables.

Rango: You see that sign up there? As long as that sign says ‘Sheriff’, you can believe that there’s law and order in this town. But without law and order – ruminate on that! Oh, yeah. Starts out slow, like a fungus. Someone says a cross word, accusations start flyin’, neighbor turns on neighbor – pretty soon, we’re eatin’ our children, and then dogs and cats are gettin’ together to create all sorts of unnatural mutant aberrations! So you want something to believe in, Spoons – believe in me. Believe in that there sign, for as long as it hangs there, we got hope.

Waffles: It’s a puzzle! It’s like a big ol’ mammogram!

Buford: This one time, I coughed up an entire dalmatian.
Wildcat: That ain’t nothin’. I coughed up a whole tribe o’ pygmies. They started lookin’ at me weird.
Willy: I remember them. They was quite friendly.
Spoons: I found a human spinal column in my fecal matter once.
(Long pause)
Sergeant Turley: You might wanna get that looked at.

Rango: Now listen! I’m gonna give you fellas one last chance to reconsider – and if you don’t wanna reconsider, I might consider reconsidering myself.

Rock-Eye: Come on, move over! I’ll let you kiss my sister!

Rango: Thirsty, brother?

Mayor: Control the water and you control everything.

Rango: Quiet, you savages! Stop your babblin’; you’re affectin’ my cogitation!

Mole clan: Things that stink and butter-cream,
Marble chips and monkey brains,
Refried bones and putter-mutter,
Kill the pigs and pass the butter!

Rango: I will blow that ugly right off your face!

Little kid: There’s a bullet in this!

Rango: Now, remember, son – stay in school, eat your veggies, burn everything but Shakespeare.

Beans: It is not a rash, it is a birthmark!

Doc: That’s a big one.

Rango: It’s a full house!

Spoons: Ain’t always spoken rightly to ya, Spirit of the West – but tonight I wanna thank you for bringin’ Sheriff Rango into our lives. It’s a hard life we got – sometimes I don’t know how we’re gonna make it. But somehow, Sheriff Rango makes me think we will. We needed a brave man, and you sent us one. Nice to have someone to believe in again. Thank you, Spirit of the West. Amen.

Rango: No need to panic, but I think you just swallowed Plan B.

Mayor: (quietly) Form a posse.
Rango: Form a possum!
(Everyone stares)
Mayor: (quietly) A posse.

Priscilla: Y’ got any gold fillin’s?

Rango: All right folks, stand back, clear the area; this is a crime scene now. Secure the perimeter, dust for prints, check for fibers, scan for DNA, I want a urine sample from everyone, and bring me a latte. And don’t mix up the two.

Spirit of the West: No man can walk out on his own story.

Beans: Go to hell!
Rattlesnake Jake: Where do you think I come from?

Rango: Reptiles! Gotta stick together, eh my brother?
Buford: I’m an amphibian.
Rango: Ain’t no shame in that.

Priscilla: Can I gut-shoot someone?

Rango: Yeah, that’s right, hombres – place I come from, we kill a man before breakfast just to work up an appetite. Then we salt ‘im, then we pepper ‘im, then we braise ‘im in clarified butter – and then… we eat ‘im.
Bar patron: Ya eat ‘im?
Rango: That’s what I said!

Waffles: What is this place?
Beans: It’s an aquifer.
Waffles: Ah. Uh… what’s an aquifer?
Buford: Well, it’s fer aqua.

Rango: Colicky varmints, ain’t they?
Wounded Bird: Dysfunctional family. Need intervention.

Beans: That’s a Spanish Dagger, but around here, we just call ‘em the Walkin’ Cactus.
Rango: ‘Walkin’?
Beans: There’s an old legend they actually walk across the desert to find water. When I was a little girl, I’d stay up late watchin’ them to see if they’d move. I thought if I could follow them, they’d lead me to someplace wonderful. Someplace with enough water for everyone. Night after night I watched ‘em. I never saw ‘em move.
Rango: But you’re still watching.
Beans: Who doesn’t want to find someplace wonderful?

Rango: (repeated line) Who am I? I could be anyone.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Cat Ballou
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (certain sequences in it, anyway)
  • The Mask of Zorro

15 comments

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    • It’s certainly possible, given the setting, but I remember thinking at the time that at least some of them more closely resembled moles – plus, I think there may have been something in the credits or some such referring to them as ‘the Mole Clan’. Anyway, it’s been long enough since I’ve seen the movie that I can’t effectively argue the point.

      • Well, I did a little research after your earlier comment, and I think I remember why I called them that. According to both Wikipedia and iMdB, Balthazar (the old blind guy) is a mole. Now, given that he’s the head and patriarch of the Clan, refers to them as his “family”, and gets addressed by them as “paw” and the like, you can probably see why I decided they were moles, too (even though he does look a lot more like an actual mole than any of the rest of them).

      • Eh, O.K. But I still think the horde is prairie dogs. And I know it doesn’t make sense. Then again, neither does prairie dogs riding giant bats with Gatling guns strapped to them, but that is still awesome.

      • Well, heck, I dunno – maybe he’s related to them by marriage? Or maybe they’re half-and-half; that might explain the weird ‘inbred desert mutant’ look some of ’em have – some weird mixing of mammalian genetics goin’ on there.
        Anyway, I’m glad you liked the movie. It’s kind of vanished from the popular consciousness since it came out; I was beginning to think I was the only one who even remembered it.

      • Rather like dogs and cats are getting together to create all sorts of unnatural mutant aberrations. Thank my sister Laina; she reminded me. And this is pretty much a home for awesome forgotten movies, eh?

      • I would guess we do, but I’m not sure. Things have gotten kinda loose around here lately, and I’m honestly not sure what sort of stuff is coming up, if any.

      • I sincerely hope it doesn’t die – I’ve invested a good deal of time and energy into it since becoming a reviewer, and was an enthusiastic reader long before that. And I really doubt that it’s about to drop dead or anything like that; it’s just that fewer and fewer things have been posted lately, and on a site where the quota per reviewer used to be three reviews/articles a month, that’s noticeable.

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