Care to Tango with Rango?

The 2011 animated feature from Gore Verbinski is a highly praised film that came out of nowhere and took most people with storm. It even won an Oscar – but is it really as good as it is made out to be?

Based on a screenplay by John Logan Rango tells the story of a small chameleon with big dreams. The second he realizes that conflict is what is missing from his lonely existence as a family pet, the chameleon is thrust out into the real world where conflict is everywhere. Arriving in a small town called Dirt the chameleon’s acting skills and unexceptionally good luck comes to great use as he convinces the inhabitants that he is a fearless cowboy by the name of Rango. Because the town is in need of a helping hand Rango is quickly made sheriff, his mission being to protect Dirt from a mysterious shortage in the town’s water supply.

This is a coming of age film that traces Rango’s transition from lonely youngster to realizing his potential and finding his place in the universe. Voiced by Johnny Depp Rango is a character very much along the lines of many of Depp’s other characters: a slightly eccentric yet loveable fellow. It took some time for me to accept Rango as a character on its own terms, yet this was not just because of Depp’s voice, it is also because of the extensive recycling of old lines and square story structure which does that his character never becomes fully believable, and neither does the story itself.

What has been praised about Rango is its extensive referencing to other films, yet for me this quickly becomes too self-conscious, and together with the use of many other genre-, and filmic conventions I simply find that Rango goes overboard to the extent that there is no personality to be found in the film. It never finds its own reason for being, and for me that means there is no reason to watch it. Yes, I acknowledge that much of contemporary Hollywood to a large extent is constructed by looking back to earlier ages for reference and inspiration, yet with Rango is seems nothing more than a show-off of encyclopedic knowledge, and what is the purpose in that? To put it in perspective let us take a multi-talent like Quentin Tarantino. Here is a guy who obviously throws all kinds of referencing in to his films, yet still he has managed to keep his films much more personal, much more interesting, and finally much more relevant than Rango could ever hope to be. Tarantiono’s own homage to the western, Django Unchained, will be in cinemas soon so it will be interesting to see how he has tackled the genre conventions.

Rango has more in common with a screenwriting book than with a truly engaging film. It does what you can read in any screenwriting book that a film should do: it introduces characters, sets up conflict and moves towards a resolution, yet none of this is done with any flair for balance or emotional intensity. Within the first five minutes conflict is piled thick, and its all downhill from there. You never really get under the skin of any of the characters, and so when the film climaxes do you really care? More than anything the film gets by by referencing to the western genre – from setting and plot to characters and cinematography – meaning that the film itself does not contain one original element. The film obviously tries to be an ode to the genre, but no matter how good intentions this film just does not cut it.

Because this film offers nothing new or substantial 107 minutes is way too long. The middle act drags on forever, and by cutting out unimportant conflict this story could have easily been told quicker, without the spectator loosing interest. Yes, it is a brave piece for trying to do such an extensive job framing film theory and history all in one, yet the plot and the characters really do not hold up to the powerful references that are constantly made. Personally I wouldn’t tango with Rango, but I do think that for a new audience who are not aware of the original material this film might give them an eventful experience, yet for the ones who have, you might start out with a certain joy of recognition, but as the film moves forward the feeling of suffocation cannot be avoided when it gets clear just how forced and poorly executed all these references are.

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