Friday, March 11, 2011

Film Commentary: Rango

Given my child-like innocence, my admiration of Johnny Depp's acting career, and my tendency to be taken in by good marketing, I decided almost immediately after seeing the previews for it that I wanted to go to see Rango. I went to a showing with my friend last night, and about ten minutes into the film, when the title character found himself stranded in the desert looking down upon the plastic fish that he had considered his closest friend, and coming to terms with the loss of everything that had defined him up to that moment, my companion turned to me and inquired, "How is this a kid's movie?"

"Who says it is?" I answered.

Andrew O'Hehir at Salon wrote an article titled "Rango and the Rise of Kidult-Oriented Animation" in which he outlines the growing trend towards gearing animated films not only towards entertaining parents who are accompanying their children, but towards adults who might attend the film by themselves and for themselves. Certainly, that has always been in spite of the implicit understanding that these films are first and foremost for children. With Rango, however, I think the balance has tipped. Whereas the "children and family" genre has long been producing material that is fun for the whole family in the sense that it has roughly equal entertainment value for both children and adults, Rango, while still fitting that formula generally, seems to me to be geared primarily towards adults, with the intention of being equally entertaining to children as a secondary consideration.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film. As a matter of fact, if Rango is intended as a children's film, I expect that I shouldn't have related to it as closely as I did. But I think the major themes were artfully designed in just that way. They can be interpreted for children, or they can be read against the backdrop of adult experiences and understood in another way. The hero is presented in the opening scene as having no genuine sense of self, and he spends some moments daydreaming about the heroic roles he could play out for himself on stage. This provides a familiar point of connection for children, who simply have not determined what course their lives will take yet. But read differently, and in a way that I think becomes more appropriate as we come to know the character and his situations better, this film is not about the lizard as a child who is just finding his way in the world, but rather the lizard as a man who has come to face a crisis of identity and alienation.

Beyond that, the film is rife with biting social commentary, some of which actually stunned me as I watched the plot unfold. The story relies at times on dense metaphors, which can certainly be expected to fly right over the heads of children, and are likely to be difficult for even some adults to grasp. These do not hide deep within the story, either, but present themselves early and directly, as with the armadillo that Rango meets at the very beginning, who councils him on the quest to reach the other side of the road, which the armadillo has undertaken many times, Beckett-like, before being run over by a vehicle and starting back on the near side.

But after we are introduced to that conceptual dialogue, we are immediately thrown into a minute of Rango riding the currents of passing cars, bouncing among windshields, and entertaining children with perfectly cartoonish excitement. That is the way it is throughout the film. There is adult humor, reference to numerous films, depiction of people struggling through economic hardship, and spiritual visions, but all the while there is slapstick comedy, gunfights among a cast of animal characters, and flashy visuals. Amongst all of this, there is entertainment enough for children and adults, and for those who seek a cerebral experience at the movies as well as those looking to indulge in pure escapism.

As the cerebral sort, I enjoyed this movie enough to rate it four and a half stars, both on account of its thought-provoking content and its skillful balance of that content and the simple, immersive spectacle of children's entertainment.

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