EDITOR’S NOTE: At tonight’s Oscars, there are three non-acting contenders that Comic Riffs is especially invested in: The ’70s-styled ballad “Man or Muppet” by uber-talented post-”Conchord” Bret McKenzie should win for song. “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” — with its nod to Buster Keaton (as if in nostalgic league with “The Artist”) — utterly charms in the Animation Short category. And “Rango” deserves the win in the Feature Animation category.
As “Rango” tries to grab the gold tonight by fending off two CGI franchises from DreamWorks Animation (“Shrek”-spun “Puss in Boots,” and “Kung Fu Panda 2”) and two “hand-drawn” foreign entries (“A Cat in Paris” and “Chico and Rita”), Comic Riffs republishes its essay from last March on what makes director Gore Verbinski’s cartoon-Western so special:
Rango, you scaly devil — you had me at “smuh!”
As delivered by Johnny Depp, Rango the pet thespian’s opening lines, actually, become “Smuh-smuh-smuh-SMUH!” With all his terrarium’s a stage, our monologue-happy chameleon is doing vocal warm-ups, yet Depp’s eruptive effects are also a pitch-perfect impression of Jack Lemmon’s sinus-clearing honking — as the finicky Felix — in Neil Simon’s sublime “The Odd Couple.”
There will be more afoot, in other words, than sonic silliness. Gore Verbinski has just issued a sounding as distinct as a goose call: If you love film as much as I do, the “Rango” director is signaling, then gird your loins for more purloined cinematic references than you can shake a divining stick at.
And with the dearth of scorched-earth water on this “Chinatown”-ribbing desert, a divining rod is perhaps the just-right tool, for this is a film about questing. A parched town (Dirt) seeks hydration. A lost lizard (Rango) seeks identity. And a filmmaker (Gore) seeks a few good savvy viewers who will indulge and appreciate his allusions to everything from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Apocalypse Now” to more Clint Eastwood movies than you can shake a cheroot at.
[‘RANGO’ BOWS IN: How the animated Depp film could help change the game]
This is a heartfelt valentine to Hollywood, but such an offering invites a certain big-screen nostalgia from the viewer. To lift (and twist) a line from the animated adventure itself, in other words, it takes two to “Rango.” And boy-howdy, when it comes to this cinematic tango, does Verbinski know how to two-step.
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The movie allusions fly so fast and nefarious, I was sucking wind (for all I know, it was “Gone With the Wind”) by the second reel. Many of the references are overt, including nods to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Cat Ballou,” “High Plains Drifter,” “The Lion King,” “Raising Arizona,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Vertigo,” “High Noon,” “True Grit,” “The Shakiest Gun in the West” and even Eli Wallach’s classic last line to Eastwood in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (from which, as with “Chinatown,” “Rango” cribs liberally).
Leone. Hitchcock. Polanski and Peckinpah. Ford and Ford Coppola. “Rango” largely cattle-rustles the prattle from the best. (Including, of course, Verbinski’s own “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.) “Rango” is so chock-a-block with “film within a film” talk -- is that a “Steamboat Bill Jr.” or “North by Northwest” reference whizzing past? -- the viewer half-suspects that light improv and on-the-fly rewrites were entirely permitted on this project. (A coupla other apparently line-checked films: “Fellowship of the Ring,” “Hollywood Shuffle” and “Star Wars”; perhaps more than coincidentally, “Rango” was animated by George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic.)
But here’s the trick: Verbinski allows the story to flow like agua on its narrative merits, too -- “Rango” is sensical even if you have no filmic sensibility. If a spew of old-movie allusions guaranteed greatness -- if mere pastiche equalled masterpiece -- then every Quentin Tarantino flick would be genius, and an animated film need only hire the manically talented Robin Williams to toss off film quotes like some imdb.com algorithm on hyper-drive.
“Rango,” in other words, passes what I call the “Schmidt” litmus test.
The Alexander Payne film “About Schmidt,” as many may recall, is the 2002 film in which Jack Nicholson plays a retired and widowed Omaha actuary who hits the road in a motor home searching for a life he may have squandered. Nicholson received an Oscar nomination for his stellar performance, but part of the film’s brilliance is also the fact it operates perfectly nimbly on two levels: The story unspools as a moving tale of an aging man, but on another level, “Schmidt” is a front-to-back ode to Nicholson’s entire career, seemingly referencing with a twist (often subtly) every classic Jack performance. (”Cuckoo’s Nest”? Check. “Five Easy Pieces”? Sure. “Easy Rider”? Absolutely.)
It’s fitting, then, that Rango is the role-playing Chameleon With No Identity. (As a stripes-changing actor without internal substance, he might well be as blank as the headstone next to “Art Stanton” in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”) Some critics have curiously accused “Rango” of being “soulless.” The lizard may lack identity -- especially next to Ned Beatty’s tortoise that channels John Huston, or Bill Nighy’s gunslingin’ snake that summons Lee Van Cleef -- but he is nothing if not soulful.
In so many ways, too, “Rango” is utterly its own animal. It doesn’t resort to yukking-and-jiving like an “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” and it doesn’t see fit to squeeze in some sentimentality that Pixar has so mastered. Instead, “Rango” -- true to the spaghetti western -- strives first and foremost to be simply engrossing. (I watched the film in a packed theater half full with kids, and the most conspicuous sound was not giddy laughter or the squirming of boredom, but rather rapt and beguiling silence.)
And “Rango,” thankfully, is also a very, very good film because it pays its cinematic debts respectfully, without drooling idol worship. When you tip your ten-gallon to the Eastwoods and Leones, it’s only fittin’ that you do so with a proper reserve.
Several years ago, I met Clint Eastwood at an MPAA dinner. My internal monologue wanted to tell him how much his films -- especially his spaghetti westerns -- had profoundly sparked my cinematic fandom in boyhood. Instead, we chatted of both being San Francisco natives, of the natural beauty of the Bay Area, and in an aside, I politely said I was a fan of his work. (”Why, thanks,” came the warm, raspy reply.)
“Rango,” likewise, is a fan’s conversation. But only if you’re willing to listen.