A Look Back on Rango, and a Look Ahead to Adult Animation

By: Alex Bonilla


When you look at the winners of the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards over the last ten years, you’ll notice only one movie that breaks from the recent trends:

  • 2016: Zootopia, Disney
  • 2015: Inside Out, Pixar
  • 2014: Big Hero 6, Disney
  • 2013: Frozen, Disney
  • 2012: Brave, Pixar
  • 2011: Rango, Nickelodeon
  • 2010: Toy Story 3, Pixar
  • 2009: Up, Pixar
  • 2008: Wall-E, Pixar
  • 2007: Ratatouille, Pixar

Yep, every year the Oscar voters are presented with a series of the best animated films of the year, and they inevitably lean on the brand recognition that Pixar and Disney have accrued. The only exception happened in 2011, when Rango won the title over the mainstream offerings of Puss in Boots and Kung Fu Panda 2 (of course, that was the only year in which neither Disney nor Pixar put an Oscar-caliber animated film out).

Today we’re a little over 6 years since Rango‘s premiere date, and it’s still a rather strange moment in recent animation history. Gore Verbinski was coming off the direction of three installments of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise which earned billions of dollars worldwide (Dead Man’s Chest alone finished with over $1 billion worldwide). As a result, he earned a blank check from Hollywood and decided to make a Western CGI venture with a lizard voiced by Johnny Depp.

Westerns in children’s animation just don’t happen, aside from the long-forgotten 2004 Disney 2D-animated Home on the Range, so this premise was already aiming at a more mature audience. Then when you throw in constant smoking, a drunk rabbit doctor, and singing owls hanging from nooses, you begin to wonder how in the world this stayed at a PG rating.

But all those details end up helping the movie to stand apart from an industry that has gotten much too clean in an attempt to appeal to the widest audience possible. You end up getting immersed much easier in the atmosphere Verbinski has crafted for this lost lizard in the West because the grittiness you’d expect from such an isolated town is right there. You have the big-breasted frog hooker, and the veteran with an arrow through his eye socket (yes, these exist).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t compliment the stellar animation itself. This is to date Industrial Light and Magic’s only feature animated film, but their pedigree shows. They were revolutionary for making some of the most famous early animated sequences in live action projects, such as the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Davy Jones from the aforementioned Dead Man’s Chest. Verbinski was impressed enough by their motion-capture techniques to bring them onto this film, and that led him to use a system where ILM would animate using the actors’ real-life movements as reference.

While the character animation is nice (it’s especially awesome to see Rattlesnake Jake slithering around the town), I’m more enamored with the set. The town is beautiful, the wood feels real when it breaks, the Pepto-Bismol toilet looks rather authentic. Even the namesake of the town, the dirt itself, is as earthy as I’d like to see in more animated films, and it makes an impact when you see slightly damped dirt later in the movie. Water is important to this movie’s plot, and the animation of water shooting up from the ground is also impressive.

At the end of the day, the word to succinctly describe Rango is “quirky”. The titular character adopts several accents in the first five minutes. Spanish curse words are flirted with constantly. I think a lesbian joke happens at some point. (There are so many weird jokes in this that I’ve watched the film several times and still don’t get some of them.) References are made to classic films that no child would have ever seen, such as Chinatown, A Fistful of Dollars and even Depp’s breakout Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s just a delightful mixture of all these random influences that, at least for me, meshed together perfectly.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, there was an interesting exchange between Verbinski and John Lasseter, head of Pixar. Lasseter was talking about the economics of making animated movies, and Verbinski gave this quote: “What happened to the Ralph Bakshis of the world? We’re all sitting here talking about family entertainment. Does animation have to be family entertainment? I think at that cost, yes. There’s the bull’s eye you have to hit, but when you miss it by a little bit and you do something interesting, the bull’s eye is going to move. Audiences want something new; they just can’t articulate what. The business model for family entertainment is sated and very content, and there is a lot of really brilliant family entertainment, but I’d like to see animation that’s more niche.”

Lasseter responded by asserting that you can make unique films within the family entertainment umbrella, and Verbinski continues to push the question: “Could it be PG-13? Could it be R? You don’t have to. I’m just saying, could it be?”. The entire interview is worth a read, and this segment ends up being an observation that’s slowly made itself manifest. Sausage Party made waves by becoming the first R-rated CGI wide release film last year. We also had Anomalisa, a stop-motion Charlie Kaufman film, become the first ever R-rated nominee at the Oscars’ Best Animated Feature category in 2015. Television was always the frontier for adult animation, and it continues to do so with the critical acclaim Rick and Morty, Bojack Horseman and Samurai Jack are getting. But it seems Verbinski gave voice to a movement that is beginning to gain steam in the film industry. While we’re in the doldrums of the animation movie slate (Boss Baby and The Smurfs: The Lost Village are about to be together in theaters…), there is hope that the genre of animation can be put to a better and more diversified use as Verbinski articulated in 2011, and tried to push to the PG limit in Rango, perhaps my favorite animated movie ever.

Customer service and data cleanup guy for Sports-Reference, Alex finds solace in emotionally resonant television and bad puns. Also a member of the r/stevenuniverse moderation team.


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