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movies / March 5, 2011
By Eileen Jones


Rango is this crazy animated movie about a lizard in a state of existential crisis. His tale is narrated in song by a mariachi band comprised of four owls, and they sing about his imminent, heroic death throughout. Rango keeps not-dying, and the band then sings about how he hasn’t died yet but he’s going to die soon, for sure. This goes on through the whole movie, which is neck-deep in death. Some of it’s kind of shocking.

So you see this is one of those cases when Crazy = Good. Because though it’s being marketed as a kid’s movie, much like all the other toothless animated kid’s movies Hollywood’s grinding out lately, Rango has put the fangs back into children’s entertainment.  Exxxxx-cellent! Somebody has decided to use the magic of cinema to raise tougher-minded offspring. ‘Bout time.

In the beginning, we have a no-name lizard who lives in a tank with a plastic palm tree, the torso of a Barbie doll, and a wind-up goldfish. With these inert “actors” as co-stars, our lizard stages plays featuring himself as the hero, as a way of staving off the horror of his empty existence.


Then a car crash on a desert highway catapults him out of his tank into the cruel world, where death is built right into the landscape. Everything in it is dead, or deadly. In order to survive, the lizard takes on an identity that seems to fit the geographical frame: a Western hero named Rango, a composite figure derived from a million movies about Western heroes.

How does a lizard in a tank know so much about movie Westerns, you ask in your literal-minded way? It doesn’t matter, dope—it’s an allegory. Also a cartoon. Either way, just go with it.

Gore Verbinski’s the creative honcho here (co-writer, director, producer) and he’s not being shy about throwing down the gauntlet: the movie fairly shouts his ambition to defy Pixar, to play Warner Brothers to their Disney. Disney specialized in cute cuddly characters, hidebound morality, and sleek state-of-the-art animated beauty; Warner Brothers countered with rangy loudmouth characters who generally had morals as elastic as their bodies, plus a refusal of any prissy obvious aestheticizing.


For years Pixar has followed Disney like a groveling courtier. Now Verbinski shoves Rango out there to take up the old Warners fight, opposing Pixar in all things. Where Pixar narratives are tight and coherent, Rango is loose and rambling; where Pixar characters are smooth, symmetrical, round, and pretty-colored, Rango characters are angular, asymmetrical, rough, shaggy, scaly, warty, mangy, one-eared, riddled with scars and flaws. There’s a bird character in Rango that goes through the whole movie with an arrow sticking out of one eye. And there’s plenty of CGI detail about the arrow-in-the-eye, too.

Here’s reliably-dim film critic Lisa Schwartzbaum on the look of the film:

The biggest strike against Rango, though — for both the movie and the hero — is that the lizard is so damn ugly. As are his animated colleagues. And by ugly I mean remarkably, repellently, did this really test well with audiences? Jar Jar Binks ugly.

God, she’s a great resource! Always wrong! Always, always wrong!

Because Rango is quite beautiful in its harsh, perverse way. The Industrial Light and Magic special effects team, in consultation with the great cinematographer Roger Deakins (the Coen brothers’ DP—your cue to bow reverently) have knocked themselves out concocting shots so vivid and startling, you suddenly remember the insane possibilities of CGI and find yourself mesmerized by little rivulets of trickling sand and watery reflections through warped glass, and you forget the rant you’d just been delivering about how American movies suck so badly, you wish they’d just stop making them, just stop, declare the whole industry dead, over, finished, done, euthanize it, kill it, stomp it, smash it—

Wait, where was I?

Oh yeah, Rango. Admirable stuff, deliberately stark and distorted and funny, with a rich line-up of offbeat vocal talent: Johnny Depp, Alfred Molino, Billy Nighy, Isla Fisher, Harry Dean Stanton, Stephen Root, Ned Beatty, Timothy Olyphant.


It’s touching how Verbinski (best known for the Pirates of the Caribbean series) wants to use genre in that old, great way always available to ambitious filmmakers, as a means of thinking about something under the merciful guise of entertainment. In this case, the genre is the Western, and the conundrum is about life as a kind of limbo, out of which we’re expected to “make something of ourselves.” We have to choose something/someone to be in order to interact at all, and that generally means imitating an existing persona out of a limited range of culturally-available personae (including genre movie types), and then incurring all the crap that goes with whatever one you chose, who was never really you in the first place, but on the other hand, who the hell are you? You can’t really know, in all the mess of trying to get along, and racing the clock, and cursing your mortality. But still you fight to impose some sort of narrative shape on things, one that that seems roughly appropriate for the persona you picked. In the end, if you’ve done anything interesting—which is unlikely—you might get to be a story people tell after your demise. There’s always the risk though, that the story told will have very little to do with you, or rather “you,” and everything to do with some generic legend. (See the classic Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence for further philosophical details.)

Yeah, it’s a rotten system. If there’s a God, he’s a real bastard.


Verbinski seems genuinely interested in this kind of thing. He did an elaborate limbo-space sequence in Pirates of the Caribbean III, which was the desert Hell in which Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) confronted himself, or his lack of self, or his too many selves. Verbinski does another version of that sequence in dramatizing Rango’s nadir in the desert, after he’s miraculously crossed the highway and is “on the other side.” (“It’s a metaphor,” mutters the armadillo named Roadkill, who appears to have been run over and killed early in the film, practically bisected by a tire, but who’s somehow up walking around anyway.)

In a horizonless white glare that might be real-desert or dream-desert or afterlife-desert, Rango confronts the ultimate Western hero, the Man With No Name, who tells him “No man can escape his own story,” and draws a square frame around Rango’s face in a dirty windshield. This is a boggler, because early on, no-name lizard drew a frame around his own face in the tank-glass that was his prison, where he enacted stories about himself, to himself.  So you don’t know how to take that climactic life-lesson: it doesn’t sound so nicely affirmative as life-lessons generally do in movies.

See what I mean? Terrific kids’ entertainment! They can chew on that scene for years!


Add your own

  • 1. az  |  March 5th, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    Fits in well with the other Mexico article.

  • 2. JoJoJo  |  March 6th, 2011 at 12:31 am

    The commercials made this look like Pixar also ran trash like Megamind and Kung Fu Panda. Shocked that this is actually good!? I’ll have to go check it out. Thanks for the (always funny) review Eileen! Although before reading the whole thing I thought you only liked it because you are a Johnny Depp fangurl.

  • 3. Hannibal  |  March 6th, 2011 at 5:00 am

    Any Eileen Jones review burns a thousand times brighter than anything that throatless freak ever wrote.

  • 4. wengler  |  March 6th, 2011 at 10:30 am

    Anything to end the Pixar schmaltz parade.

  • 5. Brian  |  March 6th, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Excellent review, and the movie wasn’t bad either. One small nit to pick – I think it’s MolinA rather than Molino

  • 6. Just FYI  |  March 6th, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Under voices you have listed Alfred Molino, his name is Alfred Molina.

  • 7. no one in particular  |  March 6th, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Great review! I’m intrigued enough that I want to see this now

  • 8. Jyp  |  March 6th, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Hey ja.. something for my vicious grandchildren. I’ll go tell their nasty parents that Eileen wants ’em to go their shot of existential anguish so they can turn out to be vicious old nutjobs like their rotten grandpa. Tenks kid.

  • 9. MicC  |  March 6th, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    This movie is beyond awesome.

    The very beginning had scene from FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS.

    Kid’s movie, sure.

    The part with swirling sand and the moon was just so beautiful, it was more detailed and immersive than any real footage I have seen. Beyond good.

  • 10. radii  |  March 6th, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    real art always has at least a touch of the subversive

  • 11. Derp  |  March 7th, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    Derp derp! This is still my favorite movie of all time, derp derp!

  • 12. Padderous  |  March 8th, 2011 at 11:57 am

    Hadn’t heard of this until now. The description immediately made me think of ‘Xaiver: Renegade Angel’ on Adult Swim.

    That show was about a meandering freak trying to find himself, his inner self and his inner inner self.

    If this movie come to a torrent near me I’ll definitely be checking it out.

  • 13. maus  |  March 9th, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    @10: “real art always has at least a touch of the subversive”

    ah lahk mah tittysplosion 3d because i don’t have to be introspective.

  • 14. derpotism  |  March 9th, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    someone pointed out that the lizard’s face looks like the cover of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

  • 15. Bearded One  |  March 10th, 2011 at 6:23 am

    this movie was made by ILM, NOT PIXAR, dumbass

  • 16. DaveW  |  March 10th, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    Rango reminded me of Hunter Thompson a bit with the Hawaiian shirt and flaky demeanor. When the animated Thompson brushed him off the windshield that was priceless.

  • 17. my talkative ringpiece  |  March 10th, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    Wait, Jar-Jar Binks is ugly? He’s a freakin’ Jar-Jar or whatever he is, who’s to say he’s ugly?

    Lately I spend a lot of time with miniature velociraptors with all kinds of strange RED growths out of their heads. Their eggs are delicious! They’re chickens, of course. They’re probably the strangest creatures Man has partnered with.

    I’ve got to see this movie!

  • 18. muahaha  |  March 11th, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Americans are all bi-polar because of their fucking manic cartoons. The madness starts early. Sure they deny it. Fuckin cockoos.

  • 19. teoc  |  March 12th, 2011 at 7:47 am

    Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” meets Disney Land…the leezzard’s shirt is identical to the one worn by Depp portraying Hunter Thompson in Fear and Loathing…

    Thompson might have like this but would have also shot the hell out of the video device (never would have gone to a theater) after watching it.

  • 20. allen  |  March 12th, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Nice review, I think I may actually see Rango now. BUT, am I ever getting tired of seeing that fish when I load the Exiled …

    Common’ folks’ stuff is happening! Content, please.

  • 21. Captain Prickhard  |  March 12th, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    so is Ames on vacation?

    oh and what happened with those tattles-taled by Jim Goad to cable news outlets? Are you still gonna appear on Dylan’s show?

  • 22. Dean Sayers  |  March 16th, 2011 at 10:33 am

    And here I had written this one off… guess I’ll take a shot at it.

    Also – update the newsfeed. That is all.

  • 23. Mike Z  |  March 17th, 2011 at 5:24 am

    wow that’s one convincing review ahma see this badboy fo shu.

  • 24. Flatulissimo  |  March 17th, 2011 at 9:21 am

    I saw this last night, and it was just as good as Jones claims.

    The characters ARE amazingly ugly, too, and just as Schwartzbaum I wondered if they had managed to make this multi-million dollar movie without any focus groups. But I saw it as a positive rather than a flaw. I think the kids in the theater were more scared by the supporting characters than by the villains.

    Another great detail that Jones didn’t mention – a rattlesnake with a fucking Gatling gun for a rattle. That’s some Bo Diddley bad-ass imagery right there.

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