RANGO


 

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.

 

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THE ILLUSIONIST/L’ILLUSIONNISTE

The world critics of THE ILLUSIONIST go on about ”melancholia”, ”nostalgia”, and ”emotion’, as if addressing some Walt Disney production. In fact, the critics are taking precisely the nostalgic perspective  that the film abandons as a premise.

The critics’ response is a part of the film’s satirical targeting. Ostensibly a story about the departure of Magic from the world, THE ILLUSIONIST is all about the fact that THERE IS NO MAGIC IN THE WORLD TO BEGIN WITH, while all pain, sadness and misunderstanding come from people’s stubborn belief in the Magic.

Chomet’s artistry lies in the way he captures this existential error in the subtle nuances of character animation. Not by breathing life into dead things – rather, by bringing dead things back to life. Paul Welles once said, ”animation is reanimation”.

As Tatichef (the Illusionist, based on Jacques Tati) walks the streets of Edinburgh, Chomet paints a detailed canvas of all the ordinary people crossing his path. Their movements are stifled, awkward, the movements of zombies. Consumerism is starting to flourish in the 1950s setting, and everybody seems to be looking for Magic, coded by rock’n’roll and the glimmering white coat that Tatichef’s adopted daughter desires.

Meanwhile, between all these planned movements, we see an incredibly rich portrait of human quirks. Every single frame in this movie breathes personality. It’s as though in their pursuit of the Magic people have forgotten the ”real magic” – their own character! Illuminated from within by the unpredictable light of the Scottish skies, the world shows its amazing singularity.

I suppose if I was in a sufficiently theoretical frame of mind, I would say that THE ILLUSIONIST observes language with the same suspicion that you sense in Jacques Tati’s other stories. Misunderstanding largely seems to come from spoken language, and the film’s pantomime – which reveals the glitches, the errors and the repetitions in movement – accesses the human condition far more directly.

WALL-E

The problem with Pixar is that they always teeter on the verge of brilliance, but never make it. There are pressing commercial demands to be met. In this case, Pixar caters to the consumerist guilt of fat Americans, who will go to WALL-E so they may ”engage” with the film’s politically correct ecology. One according to which the energy problem comes not from economic exploitation, but from the failure of the general population to recycle.

What’s nearly brilliant about WALL-E is the way it uses the language of animation (first discovered by Charlie Chaplin) to create a complex choreography. There is very little talk, except for some coy buzzing and bleeping. The film unfolds through pantomime, making good use of the mise-en-scene to create an allegory of the Apocalypse. In some special moments, when the director drops all pretense of story, movement and sound accomplish a total synergy.

Then in a move which felt avant-garde for a big studio like Pixar, the early scenes are shot by a candid camera (as in reality TV), suggesting not so much audience voyeurism as an omniscient Machine-Camera. This is later supported by the reference to Stanley Kubrick’s Hal, the robotic control freak from 2001:A Space Odyssey. The trick never gets as subtle as it did in independent films, but for a mainstream animation, it’s pretty daring.

The second, ”environmental” part of the movie is a rather weak parody wherein the humans of the future appear as half-paralyzed slugs living on a spaceship. This is where the 1950s Americana comes in, readers, for Pixar’s brand of social critique is a subliminal advertisement for 1950s consumerist bliss. It’s very important that Americans should feel that their country still stands for a middle class Paradise in the midst of the Iraqi war.

Set design draws on the obsessive scavenging of the 1980s and of course, it re-brands Lucas’s STAR WARS and Spielberg’s EXTRATERRESTRIAL abundantly. Yet the parody neither made me laugh nor did it get me to sweat over issues: as it turns out, humaneness will triumph in the end and the exiled people will return from the City in the Clouds to Mother Earth. Wall-E shall overcome his Oedipus complex, be reborn, and the story of Adam and Eve shall recommence.

Among the many opportunities missed was a bleak ending (which the makers originally intended) with WALL-E completely losing his hard disk and his memories of being human. With such an ending, the film would have stayed truer to its origins in 1980s apocalyptic science fiction.