“Rango” (2011) and “The Big Year” (2011)
Rango, the crooked necked chameleon sheriff, in drag, rides a chicken wildly through a ravine. Outlaw moles fly overhead on harnessed bats, unleashing machine gun fire on our hero to the strains of Ride of the Valkyries. Return fire knocks a bat out of the air, which crashes against the ravine wall and explodes like an x-wing fighter attacking the Death Star. And so goes much of this wild and rambunctious Western adventure from director Gore Verbinski.
Voiced with brilliant enthusiasm by Johnny Depp, Rango is the Lizard With No Name. He makes up his name in a moment of panic by glancing at a liquor bottle with the label ‘Durango’. His story is an all-inclusive derivation of the Western genre, from a silence inducing salon entrance to a shootout at high noon. It is a bit disappointing that so many animated movies, Pixar’s best notwithstanding, are still handicapped by plots that are little more than send-ups of live action genre cliché. But with an assembly line of visually interesting characters, a few fun twists and a healthy dose of clever comedy, such mundane ideas as original plot are abandoned in the name of fun.
When we meet Rango, he is a pet chameleon in a glass tank, placed haphazardly in the rear of a station wagon. We never see his owner, but we do see how lonely he is: he has resorted to putting on “plays” with his inanimate friends, which include a plastic tree, a windup goldfish and a miniature mannequin torso. But his safe and secluded world is lost when a car crash throws the tank from the back seat and leaves him stranded in the Mojave Desert.
It is immediately apparent that Depp has been given free rein to play with the character. His opening soliloquy could just as well be an outtake from a Jack Sparrow scene, albeit one with just a touch of self- realization. We also find that natural selection has for some reason given lizards and armadillos the ability to speak, whereas a furry wart hog is tethered to a wagon like a horse, a dumb pack animal. This holds true throughout: snakes and moles can speak, bats and hawks can’t. Mice can speak but chickens are used like war horses. The only reason this bothers me in this movie is because it is a story about fighting greed and destructive industry, a defense of the “little guy”. And yet they have their fellow desert animals, nearly as small in stature, trussed up like mules and horses. I wonder if even children watching the movie wondered the same thing. It would have been very simple to alleviate this odd dynamic. Just have one of the war chickens say something. We have seen it before, where the leader of the chickens preps her troops for battle, and they willingly carry the others into the fray.
The joys of astoundingly good animation and excellent voice acting completely dominate the rest of the movie. A lady lizard named Beans finds Rango in the desert and takes him to a town called Dirt. The townspeople in Dirt are in need of water, and a hero to save them. A blend of seemingly white lies and cartoon luck leads them to believe that Rango is just such a hero. Eager to define himself and impress Beans, Rango uses his acting skills, perfected in his previous life in the tank, to take on the heroic persona. He pledges to find where all the water has gone.
Water is used as a stand-in for money in Dirt. There is a bank that holds the town’s water supply, and each citizen makes deposits when they gather it. And if water is so scarce and valuable that it is kept in a locked vault, then of course someone will try to steal it. Every Wednesday at noon, the citizens gather to collect their water ration for the week. For some reason, they also do a sort of ritualistic rain dance as they walk towards the water tower on the outskirts of Dirt. Rango is startled and confused by their behavior, and we are supposed to see humor in it. Instead, it is a little disquieting. It is too cult-like for the rest of the movie. That bit of strangeness finished, they gather one Wednesday to receive their water and are horrified to discover that the water is all gone.
As Rango investigates the disappearance of the water, it becomes clear that not everyone is as they seem. I will refrain from detailing the rest of the plot. It is, as I said, a typical Western. Suffice to say that Rango must discover his true Self, and the fate of Dirt lies in his hands.
Perfectly type-cast voice acting includes Ned Beatty as the domineering mayor, Bill Nighy as the creepy Rattlesnake Jake, Ray Winstone as thuggish Bad Bill, Alfred Molina as Roadkill (the mystic armadillo) and Timothy Olyphant in an amusing and well done cameo.
Why did I like The Big Year as much as I did? It is a relatively plotless, meaningless movie about competing bird watchers. And yet the incredibly likeable trio of Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin make it a light, enjoyable romp through the strange world of the ornithological Olympics (a ‘Big Year’ is a competition to see who can spot more species of birds in a calendar year).
Particularly amusing – and refreshing- is that there is no “bad guy”. Sure, we have our protagonists (Black and Martin) and their nemesis (Wilson), but Wilson’s character proves to be a self-destructive obsessive much more than a villain. Near the end there is a bit of a moral to the story (“prioritize your life”?) but it hardly matters, because by the time we hear it, the fun has already come and gone. Instead, we are perfectly happy to have watched a handful of fairly good performances by some of the movies’ most distinctive comedic actors.