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.