It’s incredible to me that Rango was first released over five years ago. Not only because time appears to be accelerating as I get older, but because visually speaking it is still unrivaled in the realm of computer animation. I’m sure there have been a variety of innovations since then, but the computer animated releases we’ve seen have become more and more cartoonish, presumably to avoid an uncanny valley effect. Rango is the opposite of cartoony, with multiple shots that appear photo-realistic. Rango is also the last animated film I can remember that wasn’t afraid to be ugly. The character designs all reflect the harsh landscape that birthed them. Most of them are reptiles covered in bumps and scars, and even the few furry creatures are covered with scars and patches of matted and dirty fur. Rango is a beautiful film with incredibly ugly subjects.
But before I start praising this film too much I have to mention its main imperfection. Rango joins a list of films that I think need fan-edits. Much like Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and to a lesser extent Laika’s Paranorman, there is a layer of jokes that appears to have been added to make the film more marketable. Almost all of the jokes fall flat and involve some sort of bodily humor. It shouldn’t be that surprising, considering this was released under the Nickelodeon Movies brand. I have no way of knowing how many of these jokes were in the original script, but I do know it’s not uncommon for a film studio to pressure a director to add changes to risky ventures: and a $135 million dollar animated western about an existentialist talking lizard is the definition of risk. For the sake of the film’s legacy, however, any studio meddling was probably for the worse (as it almost always is).
Much like 1998’s Antz, I question what is here for kids to latch onto, or if this was even intended for kids in the first place. The only kids level humor are the aforementioned bodily humor gags, most of which would pass over the heads of the younger audience members. It’s not hard to imagine a kid getting bored immediately during the opening sequence when the unnamed lizard protagonist looks directly in the camera and asks, rhetorically “who am I?” Yes, our protagonist is unnamed. His name is not actually Rango, a detail you may have forgotten since 2011.
This review is full of spoilers, so I’d recommend watching the movie first.
The film is home to several interlocking conflicts, but chief among them is a lizard trying to discover his identity. Yes, there’s also a political message about the environment—specifically the diversion of natural water to create the artificial oasis and specter of late capitalism known as Las Vegas. But the central conflict is identity. When we first see him in his terrarium, the chameleon has forged an identity for himself based on the inanimate objects around him. He is an actor, and not only an actor, but the star. It appears that he has come to believe the inanimate objects are real people, but we can’t be absolutely certain of this, it could be another level of his pretending. His imagined criticism from a wind-up fish leads him to question his character motivations, but also his own identity. “Who am I?” he says. “I could be anyone.” and since he’s a chameleon, he sort of can. After a montage of affectations, he realizes that conflict is required to motivate any hero and he is summarily thrown out of the back of a moving car. The event plays as a comical “meta” coincidence, but if we look deeper I think something else is going on. The chameleon lies in the middle of the road, probably in shock from the crash, but also the shocking realization that his identity has been torn from him. A tiny umbrella floats down and touches the rim of the glass he is holding, before falling onto the ground. He was incredibly close to finally finding himself, only to miss at the last second. As he goes to take a drink from his glass, the last drop hits his tongue and turns to steam.
He finds an armadillo in the road, with a tire tread through his middle. The armadillo seems strangely fine with this. It is here we discover that the terrarium being thrown from the car wasn’t a random event—the driver was swerving to avoid the armadillo. He expresses a desire to get to “the other side” which he calls a metaphor. He sends the chameleon to find dirt, (“a real town, not a metaphor town”) and prepares to cross the road again.
Before reaching dirt, Rango has a run-in with a hawk. It’s mainly to establish the hawk as a presence in the film that will return later, but also to demonstrate Rango’s strategy towards his main objective of finding his identity. His attempt at survival is to copy a Sonoran desert toad that blends in with the ground, trying to metaphorically become him. After escaping the hawk he has a surreal nightmare, with Mr. Tibbs ominously saying “where are your friends now amigo”. It drives home the idea that his identity is completely destroyed and he is alone. The cacti around him become rattle-snake tails to foreshadow the inevitable arrival of rattlesnake Jake, and the inevitably of his aforementioned “untimely death”. The dream ends with him drowning, both literally and metaphorically.
He wakes up in a pipe dumping water into the desert, all of which sinks into the earth too fast for him to reach it. It’s here he meets Beans, another lizard, but one more adapted to the harsh climate. After she freezes as part of a defense mechanism, he stands next to her with his arm around her, trying on a new identity. Beans then gives him a ride to dirt, during which he goes to ridiculous lengths not to reveal his identity (because he doesn’t have one). Once they reach the outskirts, Beans tells him to get off and rides into town without him. Our chameleon is rejected because he has no identity, unlike all the other residents of Dirt.
In the streets of dirt, we see him copy the walk and mannerisms of the citizens, trying to determine who he should be. He is finally given an identity when he visits the local bar. Here, our chameleon doesn’t know exactly how to act. After a certain unidentifiable critter asks him “what did you say your name was?” Internally, he asks his earlier question “who am I? I could be anyone.” And so he decides to be a gunslinger. All of his swaggering bravado ends up in a gunfight, which is fatefully interrupted by the hawk from earlier. By no virtue of his own, the chameleon kills the hawk, and he is made sheriff, beginning the second act of the film.
The second act is all about water, and the search for it. Water is representative of truth. For the chameleon, this truth is his identity. Time and time again, our characters think they have found or obtained a large supply of water, only to have the rug pulled out from under them. This happens twice in the first act, and at least two more times in Act II.
The first is when the town gathers at the holy spigot to receive water, but get nothing but mud. This appears to be a fairly transparent reference to religion, and the idea that it holds no actual truth. The second is after the flight of the valkyrie sequence when the jug of water stolen by the mole family is revealed to be empty. This is a bit less clear, but the implication to me appears to be that there is no truth attainable from family either. Of course, in both cases, we later discover that the water has been stolen for the benefit of human leisure. So the indication isn’t necessarily that the church and the family hold no truth, but instead that they have been sapped of their truth by capitalistic greed, personified by the Mayor of Dirt.
At the start of act III, we see the arrival of Rattlesnake Jake. In what is probably the film’s best scene, he completely annihilates the chameleon’s facade in a brutal monologue. Jake is clearly representative of death, and directly references the taking of souls. He even claims to be from hell itself. He offers the chameleon his venom in place of a glass of water. The venom represents the bitter deadly truth of the protagonist’s mortality. Rather than killing him, Rattlesnake Jake banishes the chameleon from dirt. Exposed and humiliated, our hero walks away dejected towards the highway.
The lizard walks calmly across the road to the metaphorical other side. Despite heavy traffic, he avoids being hit. He collapses as soon as he reaches the other side and is carried away by insects. Then we finally meet the spirit of the west, who the chameleon calls “the man with no name”, which of course mirrors the nameless nature of our protagonist. The spirit of the west sends him back to dirt, saying “no man can walk out on his own story”. And so our chameleon learns that identity is something we all must choose, and he’s chosen to be sheriff Rango. By believing that he is the hero, he is able to become the hero and face the specter of death (Rattlesnake Jake).
Having accepted the truth about himself, Rango is finally able to find the source of their water problems: that the evil mayor is diverting the water to Las Vegas. His discovery comes from following the mystical walking yuccas to find the emergency shut-off valve in the pipeline. This implies that truth (water) is found by looking to nature, not to man-made institutions which have been demonstrated as failures earlier in the film. Rango returns to town and challenges Rattlesnake Jake to a shootout with a single bullet. Rango doesn’t expect to win this fight, but instead is creating a diversion. Deep down, Rango is not a sheriff, but an actor. During the diversion, others are opening the valve to return the water to Dirt. The water launches Jake into the air, indicating that the return of water (truth or meaning) to Dirt (society) eliminates the fear of death.
At this point the mayor takes Rango and Beans captive and locks them in the bank vault that is filling with water. While the two try to avoid drowning, the mayor tries to shoot Jake with Rango’s gun, signifying the attempts of wealthy materialists to avoid and even destroy death. The gun doesn’t work since Rango stole the last bullet. They escape and the town floods. Jake drags the mayor to hell. Rango has saved the town, found his identity and faced down death itself.
Rango may appear at first glance to be a throwaway kids film and an odd footnote in the careers of its creators. However, upon deeper analysis we find an incredibly dense and rich screenplay by John Logan (a screenplay that I would argue is his best). As I said before, it’s unfortunate that the film seems a bit deluded by jokes that don’t work, but if you can get passed that I absolutely recommend multiple viewings.