I watched Gore Verbinski's Rango yesterday. What an odd film. I spent the first half of it hating it, and only began to make sense of it near the end, shortly after the bats with machine guns had chased our heroes and their
gasoline tanker I mean wagon carrying a water jug down the Death Star trench I mean desert canyon.
The animation is breathtaking. Every fur texture, the hair, the scales, the clothes, all are perfect. The facial expressions and gaits are wonderful, naturalistic when called for and properly exaggerated when needed – for instance when Bill Nighy's sinister Rattlesnake Jake decides to crush someone in his coils. The landscapes are fine, and the lighting is so good that it genuinely looked as though someone had built and lit the sets for a master DP. On the other hand, the movie featured so much sudden death, mutilation, injury, roadkill, impaling on cactus spines, being set on fire, guns being handled by children and loss-of-eye-due-to-arrow-through-socket that it made me actually uncomfortable.
(Many spoilers below.)
The main character (voiced by Johnny Depp, as brilliant as usual) is a chameleon (get it?) who has no name (get it?). He lives in bliss in a glass tank (get it?) putting on plays with his pet-toys. On the way from somewhere, in the middle of the desolate Mojave Desert, his tank falls from the family car and shatters (get it?). Wandering in the desert, the humidity-loving lizard finds a cowboy town called Dirt (cf. 'Earth,' get it?). His blarney impresses everyone in the
Star Wars Cantina local saloon and so he proceeds to remake himself, as chameleons do, naming himself Rango (get it?) and setting himself up as the hero by talking up a storm as a bandit-killer. Every town needs a hero and Rango becomes sheriff.
Earlier, on his way from his shattered tank on the asphalt to the desert itself, No-Name-As-Yet meets a roadkill armadillo, midriff squashed flat. The armadillo offers Rango sage advice. This early disturbing scene rather set me up to hate the movie. And – it seemed rather abrupt. When wannabe-mythical characters are called from their tanks or other comfortable dwellings to cross the river on their Hero's Journey, they usually wander around and say why me? a lot, and the ferryman who offers sage advice is usually less dead. All became clear a lot later on.
The various animals who live in Dirt are running out of water due to a Chinatown-style conspiracy. There's a run on the water bank, a classic Western (water) bank robbery, and all kinds of Western water-related shenanigans all lifted with a fairly heavy hand from other movies.
Rango wins the heart of a girl called Beans. STB thought Beans was a lizard and that's possible. However her character flaw, or whatever it was, was freezing up and not being able to move for ten to fifteen seconds every now and again, so I thought she was a Fainting Goat. Well, whatever. Adventures are had, and eventually Rango is exposed as a motormouth actor, not a real hero, and is forced to leave the town in disgrace.
So at the end of the second act, as usual, the hero has lost everything he ever had and there is no hope of return. Then – suddenly – in a twist from the usual Scriptwriter's Handbook – he meets the armadillo again. This time he's whole and his sage advice makes sense. Rango is given a vision of the Spirit of the West (Clint Eastwood, natch) and then Crosses the Road. This crossing is much more harrowing, as he literally walks across the I-15 freeway, with cars and trucks driving over him and yet just missing him. (I suspect Gore Verbinski has seen The Trip.)
This is the true crossing to the other side. The breaking of his tank and the task of becoming the hero to a town was actually still the chameleon being a chameleon, and the suspiciously dead ferry-armadillo was not his ultimate spiritual guide. The hallucinogenic sequences of the spiritual journey in the desert led STB to remark, "Oliver Stone called, wants his movie back." The initial scene of the talking roadkill finally made sense – the fever dreams of dead animals in the desert calling you on, Oliver Stone's dying Indian at the roadside.
On The Other Side of the Road, Rango learns that the town's water is being piped to Las Vegas (it isn't named but we see its iconic skyline). I couldn't work out if Las Vegas existed in the movie or if it was a metaphor. After all, characters all the way through the film whisper the rumor that "the water is being dumped in the desert". "Las Vegas" and "water is dumped in the desert" are synonymous in one major respect, but not in many others. It made my brane hert, so I gave up.
Rango gets some magic plants-of-burden to work on reversing the pipeline, rushes back to Dirt, gets the girl, saves the day and inundates the town with water. All's probably well with the world, except that previous scenes have shown that the town is in a dry lake bed, so they'll all have to build arks. Maybe that's being saved for Rango Part II: Waterworld.