One has to wonder whether Rango the lizard’s sheriff badge is, in fact, a Communist star, for I believe that we have here the first American Communist animation of the 21st century. ”Communist” is not to be understood in the old fashioned sense of the word, but as a hint of a possible new Communism. Since this ”new Communism” hasn’t been defined yet, I’ll be content saying that we’re talking about a certain creative vision beyond the existing horizon of the current political and economic system.
Rango ends up becoming a sheriff in this decrepit village of the Wild West, where a capitalist toad is denying the citizens access to water. As he undergoes an existentialist identity crisis, Rango learns that a lizard is judged not by his thoughts, or words, but by his deeds. He gives up on the quest for his ”true self” and accepts his role as the sheriff, who will reinvent the world’s water supplies.
There are a number of great things about this set-up. First of all, RANGO succeeds in becoming the first American 3D animation that looks
different from other animations; this is no small feat in a world populated by Disney-Pixar clones. ILM’s character design is close in tone to the creature tavern from STAR WARS – adult satire teetering on horror. The puppets lean towards Jim Henson’s Muppets, which means they have fluid facial traits, allowing for believable stretch & squash. With everything covered in dirt and grit, RANGO’s visual style harkens back to the realism of the early George Lucas. Shortly, the film is successfully three-dimensional despite, or contrary to, its 3D gimmicks.
But more importantly, RANGO brings us closer to the concept of a truly adult animation, where it’s possible that there won’t be a happy ending, the emotional register is wider than happy-sad, and the directing style may be deemed avant-garde in that it (mostly) ignores the Hollywood default, going for non-linear narratives like FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, or MULHOLLAND DRIVE.
This has limitations, of course, because we’re still dealing with an American picture. For example – while you expect the whole time that Rango is going to die in the end, he never really does, and there is an existentialist cop-out ”explanation” from the owls that “he could die any time soon”. You also have to wonder how (on what basis?) Rango never succumbs to the temptation of becoming like his capitalist bosses, choosing immediately, without a moment’s reflection, to transform into a Communist lizard. In its treatment of episodic characters, the film never gets nasty enough to disturb us, instead of just titillating us with the promise of subversion.