‘Rango’ comments on politicians’ thirst for power

By Ben Labe


Directed by Gore Verbinski

Starring… “Rango”

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Starring Johnny Depp and Isla Fisher

Grade: A-

A good name is hard to come by. “Rango” is a good name. It is rugged, penetrating and well-cadenced. It sometimes even sounds ominous. Pronouncing it requires the sort of drawl that one might find in Texas or another state where Spanish and English collide.

The movie “Rango” is a formula film moonlighting as a postmodern, existentialist parody. Its plot is one that’s been explored many times, yet this film manages to be an interesting animated execution. Rango (Johnny Depp) is the film’s feckless but likeable hero.

After being dropped from the trunk of a swerving car, the once-pet lizard finds himself thrust into the middle of the Mojave Desert. The first character he meets is a sagacious armadillo (Alfred Molina) who introduces Rango to the mythology of the desert. The armadillo then directs Rango to a town called Dirt where he might find some water.

As a newcomer in town, Rango feels intimidated by his gruff hosts and lies about his previous life. After he accidentally kills a predacious hawk, the townspeople hail him as their new hero. The mayor (Ned Beatty) appoints Rango as the new sheriff.

For the animals of Dirt, water is money. Literally. At one point, the mayor makes the portentous claim, “If you control the water, you control everything.” The vault at the bank, which is just an office water cooler, is running dry under the mayor’s watch. But the mayor is nonchalant. He is a politician who knows how to use populist rhetoric against his own people. The movie incorporates important overtones about our own society, where our current economic doldrums are being used as an excuse for politicians to again impose suffering on regular people while safeguarding the rich and powerful.

Later, the banker is found dead — murdered by drowning.

The plot of Rango is nothing new, and the characters are run-of-the-mill. But the animals all have memorable traits, and because there are so many different species, there is a lot of room for character-specific jokes.

There’s the pretty girl, a scrupulous lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher) who becomes suspicious about the drought when she notices that even though there is no water, the mayor and his cronies always seem to have some. She is distrustful of Rango at first, seeing him as the ego-driven klutz that he is. But eventually she comes around — after all, this movie doesn’t deviate very much from predictable conventions.

There is also an innocent, plucky mole named Priscilla (Abigail Breslin). She is the sympathetic core of the film. In a series of heartwarming exchanges, Rango comes to realize that he cannot let Priscilla down. As a cinematic law, we know that he won’t.

The rest of the characters are faint-hearted but dependable yahoos — most notably a Native American raven and a hyperactive horned toad who accompany Rango on his mission to explain the drought and a brutish bunch of louts who act as the mayor’s muscle.

Narration and music are provided by a Mariachi band composed of owls. Every so often, the band members predict imminent death and failure for Rango, but they are always wrong. And it’s hardly a shock that the movie ends on a positive note.

The animation by Nickelodeon Movies is superb. It is realistic and stylized at all the right times, with details as impressive as those of a Pixar film. During certain sequences, the cinematography is as surreal as a Dali painting. The portrayal of desert life is witty and incisive.

“Rango” works on multiple levels. At times, it almost seems to be broken up into scenes intended for children and scenes intended for adults. As in any good family film, the verbal jokes are mostly for the adults, and the slapstick visual humor is more for the kids. Whereas kids will care about the plot and the characters, the adults are far more likely to be interested in the film’s barrage of movie references and existential conflicts. The persona of the Spirit of the West is an obvious and hysterical homage that only adults will get. It is also clear that some of the movie’s most cliché moments are only there for irony.