Revisiting Rango

When I saw Rango a few weeks ago I really like it. Granted, I am a huge fan of Johnny Depp and also a cartoon junkie, so I was predisposed to like it. But I liked Rango for being Rango—a smart, funny cartoon that was gorgeously animated. Since Pixar began their utter domination of CG animation in the mid-nineties, no one else has come close to their particularly rich environments. Pixar cartoons feel alive in a way that many critics accuse CG animation of lacking. I think this comes from Pixar’s approach to animation. I’ll never forget Brad Bird’s (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) reaction when he was asked for his opinion on Robert Zemeckis’s Polar Express. “If you’re making a cartoon, make it look like a goddamned cartoon,” he hissed, his expression a study in scorn and disdain. If you want to see what Bird means, just compare stills of the human characters from Up and Disney’s upcoming Mars Needs Moms. Which one makes you want to kill it with fire?

But Rango’s animation, which initially struck me as wonderful, easily the best non-Pixar CG cartoon to date, is entirely in keeping with Bird’s “make a cartoon” edict. Rango is a stunning first effort from Industrial Light & Magic, especially when you consider that it took DreamWorks Animation twelve years to arrive at their best effort, How to Train Your Dragon. But Rango isn’t just pretty. It’s funny and quirky and has tons of movie references to keep the adults entertained while the kids laugh at all the funny ways Rango’s body contorts as he scurries around the desert town of Dirt. And Rango has a nice, if mild, moral about being yourself and standing up to bullies and so on. Morality was not really the point of Rango.

Which may be why it scored so low with CinemaScore over its opening weekend. Despite amassing a $38 million opening weekend, the biggest opening weekend in 2011 so far, audiences didn’t seem to be leaving the theater thrilled with what they saw (WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE). There’s a big disconnect with Rango’s 87% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and it’s C+ audience grade from CinemaScore. I found myself wondering why Rango didn’t seem to be connecting to audiences. So I went to see it in a theater, to judge how people were taking it. And I think I figured it out.

Pixar has ruined animation.

Pixar makes unquestionably the best CG cartoons going right now. As beautiful as Rango is, I’m not sure it’s more beautiful than Wall-E, or Up, or any number of Pixar films. It’s right up there with them, but I don’t think it’s actually better. (Although I want to say this now so that I can be right in a year: Rango will win Best Animated Feature at the 2012 Oscars. It’s an off year for Pixar with the money-grabbing Cars 2 so that category will be open to a non-Pixar winner.) But Pixar also makes cartoons that have big, mushy hearts that make us all cry for two hours. Each time I go to see a Pixar movie, I bring a pack of tissues with me. I just count on crying now. Up made me miss my grandparents so much, Toy Story 3 had me hauling my old toys out of the basement to let them see the light of day, and Wall-E is the only movie that can still make me cry on repeat viewings.

Rango made me laugh a lot but it didn’t make cry. It didn’t even try to. And I wonder if, after fifteen years of Pixar conditioning, we don’t subconsciously expect to be moved by our cartoons now. Not that there weren’t emotional touches in Rango, because there were. An unnamed pet lizard in the beginning of the film, Rango’s closest friend is a wind-up fish toy named Mr. Timms. Rango is lonely, bored by his terrarium life, but also petrified of the outside world once he’s dumped in the desert. Rango’s relationships with rancher’s daughter Beans and the skeptical Priscilla unfold nicely, and the pep talk the Spirit of the West delivers is perfect poaching material for coaches, teachers and motivational speakers. (Timothy Olyphant is so extremely cool that even just his voice as the Spirit, which is basically just a cameo, is extremely cool.) But for all it’s heartfelt flourishes, at the end of the day Rango was not trying to jerk my tears.

It was just being funny. And tossing out movie reference after movie reference. And then there’s all that wonderful animation. Rango is just a really well made cartoon without aspiring to be anything more. A few critics called the movie “soulless” in their reviews and I rolled my eyes, thinking that they missed the point. I still think they missed the point but now I also think they tapped into why audiences didn’t have a strong impression after seeing Rango. In the wake of Pixar, we no longer know how to enjoy cartoons without tears. Makes you wonder how those silly, pointless Looney Tunes would fare today.

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4 thoughts on “Revisiting Rango

  1. Lula

    Rango is enjoyable for adults. It’s not a kid movie by any stretch of the imagination. My husband & I loved the reference to Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, but my daughters (aged 9 & 5) grew bored after 30 minutes. (To be fair, we’d just returned from Disney World & Universal–wooo, Wizarding World of Harry Potter–the day before, so it would’ve taken lots to impress my children at that juncture.)

    Breslin, Nighy, & Olyphant were awesome. The mood amongst the people in our theater echoed what I’m saying here…adults dug it, kids, not so much. Over their heads. And that’s OK. Cars 2 will be released soon & ‘Mater is easily digested.

  2. My husband really liked it. My son (7) liked it, but he likes pretty much anything. My daughter (5) didn’t enjoy it at all and fell aslepp. I nearly fell asleep myself, but was taking medication that made me drowsy, so that may not be a reflection of the movie itself – haha. In any case, as Lula said, I’d say it’s geared to adults, not kids – too much talking, not enough action for the younger set, I think. I did like the animation – thought it was well done.

  3. Glad to read this post. I was told by a friend not to go see it with my 3 year old because she had heard there was “language” in the movie and it was “not recommended.” I figured it couldn’t be THAT foul, so I took a chance and went to see it. Best.Movie.Decision.This.Month. I loved it and my 3 year old was absolutely captivated. She’s not a barbie kinda kid, she sleeps with a lizard every night that she picked out herself. It was beautifully animated and the constant action was just what I needed to keep my little busy-body in her seat for 90 minutes straight, and for once, no “Mommy, I gotta go potteee” just cos she was bored. (Same could not be said with that owl movie last fall and the horrible Alpha and Omega.) Rango is probably her favorite movie since Princess and the Frog. Oh and the “language” was one scene – “damn” and “go to hell” were the offending words. We hear worse from the potty mouth parents at Chuck-E-Cheese. But yeah the “Mommy Apps” that steer parents for which movies are “safe” for little ears have it out for Rango, whereas Disney is trusted no matter what. Maybe those moms haven’t seen Dumbo, Peter Pan or Pinocchio lately – heck, even Snow White has some questionable content. Here’s what one had to say about Rango: http://www.kids-in-mind.com/r/rango.htm.

  4. in other words, rango lacks heart. many critics don’t seem to see that, but it’s a cynical, self-referential, smart-ass hipster movie. it will be unfortunate if it gets an oscar, being funny is never enough.

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