Rango’s Storytelling Problem

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Rango tells a story of a pet chameleon with a very vivid imagination. He was used to leading a very comfortable life and would spend most of his time acting out dramatic scenes and being the star of his own little world he shared with a plastic yellow fish and a headless Barbie torso. Then, one day his terrarium fell out of his owner’s car and thus his epic adventure has begun.

Now Rangomight be an animated feature with talking animals but it’s really a classic Western at heart. Therefore where else could the poor lizard be stranded but in a desert? With some help from a fellow lizard named Beans he arrives to the dusty town of Dirt, where his taste for the theatrical leads him to invent a new persona for himself: he pretends to be a fearless drifter who goes by the name ‘Rango’ and soon finds himself in the role of the sheriff investigating the disappearance of the town’s water reserves.

There is a very goofy air about Rango, the character as well as the film. There is nothing particularly scary about it that would potentially upset or scare the younger viewers (except, maybe, for the mariachi band that keeps predicting the protagonist’s untimely death), it being a family film and all. And yet many critics noted that the film might be even more appealing to the adult viewers than to its target audience. Yes, Rango seems to be a more mature film than its animated rivals of 2011 such as Rio or Gnomeo and Juliet, or at least a film the adult audiences are more likely to enjoy to the same degree or even more than the children the film is marketed at. “Seems” is the key word here because while there undoubtedly are many adults who’ve found Rango to be very enjoyable, I would argue that most of them were film lovers who took pleasure in recognizing the many movie references scattered all over the screen. Indeed, it takes Rango mere seconds to go from spoofing Star Wars to paying homage to Apocalypse Now, while the plot itself is a mixture of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Chinatown. But self-referentiality is nothing special in this day and age, since even the Twilight-movies have discovered it by now.

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Indeed, Rango doesn’t really bother itself with deeper themes than the titular lizard’s search for identity. Yes, there is perhaps the theme of corruption hidden somewhere but it’s underdeveloped: we never see Rango really being tempted into joining forces with the evil mayor. Nor do we see any other characters considering changing sides: the villains are evil from the very beginning of the film while the heroes start off as honest characters. With the exception of Rango, of course, who in the beginning irresponsibly lies about his origins but as there never was any evil intent; his character arc never goes that far. And now we’ve come back full circle to the singular theme of the movie: the main hero’s identity quest. Now I’m not saying Rangois shallow, for it’s not. And I’m also not saying that every film should be overcrowded with profound themes, leitmotifs and complex metaphors. Not at all! It’s just that I feel that the film’s main problems lie with its script or, to be exact, with its storytelling.

If one were to look closely, one would notice that Rango’s plot is extremely linear, it consists mostly of accidental events that occur one after each other, and is hardly governed by the characters’ motivations. Not that the characters have none but the events of the film are hardly ever the result of their purposeful actions. If one were to look at the film’s major plot points, one would discover that most of them are accidents: Rango being stranded in the desert is an accident; he runs into Beans and discovers the water in the desert by accident, he defeats the Hawk by accident and it’s also by accident that he meets the Spirit of the West. It becomes apparent that the writers of Rangohad a clear outline of the story: they knew where it started and seemed to have a pretty good idea where it was heading but they don’t seem to have given much thought to such unimportant nuances as how it got there.

The romantic subplot, if we can call it that, between Rango and Beans is the best example illustrating this: apart from the fact that both characters are lizards there is no narrative reason for them to like one another. Now, this subplot is not really important so I realize the writers didn’t spend enough time/effort on adding any substantial weight to it but I think it’s really emblematic of the weak points in Rango’s storytelling. When I look back at Verbinski’s Piratesfilms I remember many saying that they got lost in an excess of CGI and start to realize that it might not be the CGI that but (in part) the weak storytelling that brought those films down.

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And this is also the case with Rango, which is a shame because otherwise the film is very good and occasionally great. The voices provided by Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, Alfred Molina and Ray Winstone are as quirky and funny as the characters themselves. And there are moments, albeit rare, when the film shows that it could be, perhaps, even more than great but a modern animation classic. There are two moments in the Rango that are truly magical and seem to have been inspired by nothing less than a Hayao Miyazaki picture. One is when the characters walk through a cave they wake a giant monster, who lazily watches them with its yellow eye. Unaware, they march on. The eye is the only thing we see of the creature, we don’t know anything about it and it is there for only a couple of seconds but it reminds of a mystical world that surrounds the characters.

The second one is when the mystical moving cacti that helps the film’s hero to find the source of the town’s trouble. Modern animation often seems to forget that fantastic elements are nothing to shy away from. Perhaps, in a (needless) attempt to be taken more seriously it doesn’t want to indulge itself with such silliness as fantasy but this makes this few moments in Rango even more precious.

Rango is a true Western and it seems to breathe the same air as many great Westerns. The town of Dirt is dusty and its citizens are scruffy. Hans Zimmer’s score evokes the works of the incomparable Ennio Morricone. And the framing, as it always was with great Westerns such as the Dollars Trilogy, is so wonderfully thought through. In a time when most if not all Hollywood films prefer to go all in in terms of CGI in favor of paying attention to the components of a single frame and appear to have forgotten such terms like ‘mise en scène’ altogether, it’s refreshing to see a film that still remembers what it’s like to compose a shot with care.

Too bad the makers of Rango forgot that great Westerns also knew how to build a coherent narrative.

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