Plot: The Mojave Desert, near Los Angeles. A car swerves on the freeway, throwing out a tank carrying a chameleon. The aged armadillo who caused the accident tells the lizard to go to the desert town of Dirt. On the way the lizard encounters a monstrous hawk and a strong-willed female iguana called Beans. Arriving in Dirt, the chameleon pretends to be a hero gunslinger called Rango. He has a run-in with the local bad guys, but their showdown is interrupted by a hawk. By luck, Rango squashes the hawk with a water tower. Dirt’s Mayor Tortoise John appoints Rango Sherriff. Dirt is desperately short of water. Thanks to Rango’s stupidity, a team of burrowing raiders enter the bank, seemingly stealing the water reserves. Rango, Beans and others give chase, taking on the raiders in an epic battle. However, it turns out the water was stolen before the raiders entered the bank. Rattlesnake Jake, who is Tortoise John’s ally, attacks Rango, exposing him as a fraud. Rango wanders delirious into the desert and has a vision of ‘the Spirit of the West’ who encourages him to try again. Seeing Las Vegas, Rango realises that Tortoise John stole Dirt’s water in order to buy the land and start his own city. Rango enlists the raiders to send a deluge down Las Vegas’ water pipes to Dirt. In the battle that follows, Rattlesnake Jake realises he has been betrayed by Tortoise John and drags him off to his doom. Dirt is saved (Osmond 2011).
Film note Starring critically acclaimed actor Johnny Depp, Rango is the first animated film from Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2011) director Gore Verbinksi. The film was commercially successful, achieving a worldwide gross of $245.7m, and became Nickelodeon Movies’ first film to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Film. Rango is distinct in its attempt to break free from the classic family animation model. Indeed, it is one of the very few adult-oriented animated parodies out there. As Verbinski noted “we could make animation that’s not for the kids, […] animation can be so much more if we let those boundaries loose” (qtd. in Belloni and Hueso). Rango’s box office and critical success combined with animation’s strong family market even moved Paramount to open its own animation division (Variety.com). But what made the film so successful?
Animation economics Animation is a powerful force within contemporary Hollywood. This can be traced back to Disney’s release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), the first internationally distributed animated feature film (Kroon 46). With this film Disney, with a clear focus on the children’s market, created a template for future animations. However, since the early nineties, animation has broken free from this child-targeted Disney template – which Jayne Pilling names “the Disney Model” (Pilling xi) – to be replaced by a Pixar model which aims its animations at a wider age demographic. The growing popularity of animation is ascribed to two factors: the advent of computer technology and the importance of this more broadly defined family audience. Consequentially animation now holds a strong position within the landscape of the contemporary cinema.
The release of Star Wars in 1977 is often used as a marker of the rise of the family film. The outstanding box office performance of the film indicated the financial gains to be had from targeting the family audience and through the 1980s the family film became the dominant mode. During the 2000s family films have accounted for the highest grossing film of each year for the last fifteen years (Boxoffice.com). This again demonstrates the economic power of the family audience, making this type of film a safe-bet for production companies.
Jayne Pilling notes that by the 1990s the more adult-orientated Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), The Simpsons (1989 – present) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) had allowed animation “to shed its marginalised status”. And this trend has continued with the success of adult/young adult animated shows such as Family Guy (1999 – Present), South Park (1997 – Present), Beavis and Butthead (1993 – 2011) and American Dad (2005 – Present). This, in part, explains the arrival and success of Pixar and its ability to dominate Disney. Through tailoring films to appeal to this adult market as well as the family one, Pixar managed to usurp Disney’s monopoly on children’s entertainment. In doing so, “Pixar animation has defined dominant cinema […] essentially replacing Disney’s classic model” (Wells, 89). Recent films such as Toy Story 3 (2010) and Up (2009) have both been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, stretching beyond the usual animation category, displaying animation’s penetration into Hollywood. Pixar consistently engages openly in adult themes and double meanings in order to address their adult audiences. For example, Pixar’s Toy Story (1995) includes a toy with a fishing rod attached to Barbie’s legs; a visual play on the word ‘hooker’. Whereas this joke will go over children’s heads, the adult audience may understand and enjoy the humour.
As technology and CGI become more advanced, and the animated feature films celebrated by an adult audience, their status is elevated, allowing the form to be “progressive and developmental within the mainstream” (Wells 89). The commercial import of CGI can be seen in recent box office statistics that show that whilst live action films grossed $6.9bn domestically with 622 films, animation films grossed $1bn with just 17 films (BoxOfficeMojo.com).
Rango’s position within this strong sub section of the industry is interesting. As an animated Spaghetti Western with an identity quest narrative with a postmodern twist, it is pitched more at the adult viewer than the child or family audience. As Kim Newman states, “Let’s face it, a Spaghetti Western with reptiles was never going to be a comfortable watch”. Indeed, Andrew Osmond argues that “it is debatable whether [Rango is] for children at all” (45). However, as can be seen from the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Verbinski knows how to successfully satisfy a family audience. Therefore, the adult orientation of Rango must have been intentional. It was, however, a costly decision.
Star power, or in animation’s case, voice power, is a significant factor in ensuring box office success. That Rango turned a profit in spite of being pitched solely at adult viewers might be attributed to this. Just how star power affects animation has always been contested, as traditionally, a large part of a star’s attraction has been the voyeuristic pleasure “grounded in some form of visual desire, the pleasure of the image.” (Butler 347) The nature of animation eliminates this voyeuristic element and yet components of the star system still remain, with the voice becoming sufficient pull to bring audiences to the cinema. The use of star power to sell an animated film is nothing new and can be traced back to Disney with Robin Williams’ voice acting in Aladdin. Animation often uses the actor’s voice to draw in the audience’s familiarity with their previous roles. This can be seen in the casting of the Shrek series (2001–2013), with Antonio Banderas as the debonair Puss in Boots, a feline reincarnation of Zorro. Similarly Cameron Diaz as Princess Fiona in Shrek references her roles in the Charlie’s Angels series (2000–2003). Rango uses Depp’s previous roles and character acting when playing Rango. For example, Depp’s role in Pirates of the Caribbean is repeatedly referenced and even used to market the film, as demonstrated in the theatrical release poster. The poster’s heading ‘From the director of Pirates of the Caribbean’ calls upon Depp’s role as Captain Jack Sparrow, inviting the audience to make relations between the two characters, something encouraged by the tagline “Johnny Depp IS Rango”. By using Depp’s star power and both his and the director’s link to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to market the film, it suggests that there was little faith that audiences would be attracted to an animated Spaghetti Western. Other uses of intertextual references to Depps’ roles include Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (as Rango lands in a convertible driving through the desert) and Edward Scissorhands (1990) (an eccentric loner). It is evident that part of Rango’s economic success as an adult animation is down to the draw of Johnny Depp’s star power and his reteaming with Gore Verbinski.
The Spirit of the West Whilst Rango may have underwhelmed at the box office its clever play with genre is undeniable. Rango positions itself outside the Disney Model as a sophisticated pastiche by using postmodern techniques of intertextuality, parody and irony to reimagine the western genre. Contemporary Hollywood often sees a cyclical nature of genre, which Thomas Schatz argues comes in four stages; experimental, classic, refinement and baroque (36-41). The western had gone through several of these stages as it adapted to reflect current socio-economic issues. Whilst some may argue that the later stages lead to the decline and eventual death of a particular genre, it could also be argued that the baroque phase, defined by postmodern techniques such as parody, constitute the richest moment in any given genre. This is achieved by using irony and self-reflexive ideas that comedically critique the genre whilst simultaneously allowing space for nostalgia, reaffirming the genre and its place in cinema (Harries 283). Rango self-reflexively mocks the Western. This can be seen through the characterisation of Wounded Bird which simultaneously reproduces and ridicules the western’s representation of Native Americans. These intertextual moments are not only used for pastiche but comedic value. One strong example of this intertextuality is when a Clint Eastwood-esque figure appears to Rango as ‘The Spirit of the West’. In this scene, we see him scavenging for pieces of scrap and later driving off in his downtrodden golf cart with what appears to be Eastwood’s six Academy Awards in the back. Here the film makes a joke about how with the western now obsolete, with its best known star reduced to scavenging for rubbish in the desert. At the same time, he is a God-like figure who doles out wisdom with credibility and authenticity. This recontextualising forms a meta-commentary on the genre which simultaneously aligns and differentiates itself with the film. Harries states that this meta-commentary is “directly connected to and constitutes the genre being spoofed” and that this creates a “condensed and crystallized instance of a given film genre” (282). Whilst it has been claimed that parody is a reconfiguration of a genre with no substance behind it, Harries argues that these parodies are “emblematic of Hollywood’s heightened fascination with intertextuality” (283) and that fans of these spoofs are likely to be fans of the genre itself. This resonance with audiences serves to reanchor the genre and allow for its evolution. Rango demonstrates the way in which a genre becomes self-conscious and acts self-reflexively and in doing so engages in a sophisticated exploration of the genre’s deep structure.
Another postmodern aspect of Rango arises from its animated style. The film calls on techniques found in early animation such as Looney Tunes (1930-1969) whereby the animator’s hand would interact with the animation on screen or where a character like Bugs Bunny would address the audience with a wink or sly comment. This animated ability to function as a direct commentary is used in Rango through the comedic stylings of the mariachi owl band. The band function as a narrative frame whilst commenting on the story. However, their commentary is uninformed and keeps promising the gruesome death of Rango, something that never happens. This is humorous as it highlights the expectation for multiple deaths often seen in the violent western genre and yet, Rango refuses to live up to this narrative convention and offers only one unseen death in the whole film. This again draws attention to, whilst simultaneously mocking, the stereotypical western conventions. Rango’s postmodernism engages with the western and its audience through iconography, pastiche and intertextuality with westerns as well as other films such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Chinatown (1974), not only creating a rich commentary on the nature of cinema and genre but helping to target an adult audience as well as families. However, unlike other parodies such as the Scary Movie series (2000-2013), the parodic nature of Rango is not entirely empty of substance.
Lizards and capitalist corruption As a result of the civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam war activism and counter-cultural protest, the 1970s were defined by “many liberal and leftist social and political agendas” (William and Hammond 132). This permeated into film in the form of “directionless antiheroes […] and unsettling bleak or simply indecipherable endings [seen in] a wave of neo-noir private eye remakes” (William and Hammond 144) such as Chinatown. Rango calls on Chinatown to stake out similar political territory. Not only is it similar in its story of ‘detective saves town by investigating where the water has gone’ but it also features the resurrection of some of the earlier film’s central characters, including The Mayor, whose performance is a near perfect facsimile of Chinatown’s Noah Cross (John Huston). From the exact same costumes to the charming exteriors that hide their sociopathic tendencies, they are essentially the same character. From the mid 1970s American cinema engaged themes of corruption, criminal activity and abuses of power. This “profound alienation and distrust of both government and big business” (Williams and Hammond 145) was a product of political embarrassments of the period such as the Watergate Scandal. There are clear parallels with this and the current period of cinema. Following the conflicts in the Middle East, the financial crisis and the embarrassing presidency of George W. Bush, America is again left in a very similar position of disillusionment and this sensibility has infiltrated the film industry in a similar fashion. Rango represents this disillusionment by making cynical references via its characters. For example, The Mayor represents big business and corrupt politicians. He is at first presented as a man of the people, looking out for their interests and leading the ritual to the water pipe but we soon learn that his actions are driven by ulterior motives. This can be read as a metaphor for George W Bush’s plan to invade Iraq, which was presented as a defensive move to protect citizens from WMDs but later revealed to be driven by a desire to secure access to Middle eastern oil reserves.
As the plot moves forward it is revealed that The Mayor is stealing from the people of Dirt to build a mega-city. This mimics the capitalist expansion and business ideology that the US and its cinema are dependent on. When the Mayor exclaims the world is changing and there is no place left for legends in the West anymore, “just businessmen”, it not only addresses the decline of the western in modern cinema, but offers a critique of the US’s relationship to a capitalist society where only businessmen triumph. Here we see Rango “contesting the ideological norms as well as producing them to provide an ideological critique” (Keller, 359). This ideological critique stretches to our relationship with money, visually represented through the Sundance to the water pipe alongside the decrepit and deprived town. This metaphor establishes the nature of a financially deprived town and relates directly to the recession faced at the time of Rango’s release. At the water pipe, religious words are spoken and the Sundance appears primitive and hopeless. The characters have little understanding of what the dependence upon the water means and how much power is given to the corrupt Mayor, allowing him to manipulate them with it. Rango reflects back to us our relationship with our tendencies to worship money, ultimately revealing how society is completely dependent on capitalism.
Rango expands the animation genre in contemporary cinema in a mature and political way. The film provides a perceptive critique on contemporary relations with capitalism while remaining comedic and light-hearted. No mean feat! Rango does not endeavour to provide a solution to these problems but simply raises the issues. A real pleasure of the film is that for 107 minutes it’s lovely to believe that a Lizard with an identity crisis can solve all our economic woes and become a cinematic legend in the process.
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Written by Nicolle Ellen Cannock (2011); edited by Ellie Pacter (2014), Queen Mary, University of London
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