The Rear-View Mirror: Rango (2011)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Gore Verbinski has a lot to answer for.


However, where others – take a bow, Michael Schur – have come to see the unending Pirates of the Caribbean movies and Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow as real-world representations of cosmic horror that will be among the only things to survive the heat death of the universe, I for one am willing to forgive Verbinski for a lot. A lot.

The reason for this is Rango, the 2011 animated movie that made for a most refreshing alternative to Pixar on the one side and DreamWorks Animation on the other. Rango is a strange beast, especially in comparison with the two big rivals in CG animation: where Pixar is the undisputed champion of high-concept premises turned into classics that are in equal part smart and sentimental, and DreamWorks’s success, especially at the time, was all too often based on a barrage of lazy but catchy pop culture references, Verbinski had much stranger ambitions . Rango‘s visual style combined intriguing ugliness of Ralph Steadmanesque proportions (it’s no coincidence that while the film doesn’t rely on references the way that DreamWorks movies did at the time, it does include a am-I-high-or-did-that-really-happen? wink at Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas) with the lush cinematography of Roger Deakins. Yes, that’s right: while the film is entirely computer generated, Deakins worked closely with the CG artists to bring his visual style to the virtual world – and it shows.


However, Rango doesn’t just look unique, it also tells a story that I would definitely consider unique in the medium – though ironically enough it does so by taking inspiration from one of the 1970s greats of Hollywood cinema. For all its talking animals and silliness, Rango tells a surprisingly adult story that mashes up classic and spaghetti Western tropes with the water-and-real estate plot of neo-noir classic Chinatown. Even the best examples of Western animation can sometimes feel a bit pandering, whether to a specific audience – kids or snarky teenagers – or to an ideal of what animation ought to be. Rango was an odd critter sui generis. For once, this kind of idiosyncrasy was rewarded with an Academy Award, namely the 2011 award for Best Animated Picture – but in spite of this, I don’t think Rango is much talked about these days. I’m not surprised: the film’s oddness makes it something of an acquired taste. But it is the reason why I’ll stand up for Gore Verbinski if anyone starts to bash him.


The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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