The genre of the “children’s movie” has never really been fully and formally codified, but for our purposes here, we may assign it the quick-and-dirty definition of “any film produced for marketing to a predominantly pre-tween audience.” Objections still arise even from that reasonably simple definition, however, because every children’s film bears the burden of playing to a two-pronged viewership. These movies must deliver the elements that pint-size audiences have come to expect from their entertainment, which generally entails sprightly adventuring along with a team of goofy characters, a healthy dose of physical humor immediate and self-evident enough for smooth child-brains to appreciate, and some element of fantasy that often manifests as talking versions of non-talking things, e.g. animals, toys, anthropomorphized representations of human emotion.
Gore Verbinski’s animated delight Rango delivers all of these, and does it damn well, but it also expends more effort than usual paying service to the other faction of the assumed audience. Today marks the five-year anniversary of Rango‘s original theatrical release, and though the picture managed to generate a respectable $245.7 million take over the course of its run against a $135 million budget, it hasn’t had the staying power of an Up or Kung Fu Panda. I’d personally theorize that at least part of that is due to an inability to lump Rango into the larger canon of its animation studio — it’s not a Pixar movie, a Laika movie, or a DreamWorks movie, all of which are their own distinct thing and identifiable as such, even to kids. More than that, Rango‘s somewhat diminished stature in the annals of kid-movie-dom is owed to its commitment to keeping the parents in the crowd as entertained, if not more so, than their children. Rango is a clever, highly idiosyncratic film, but those same qualities mark it with a rare inner contradiction. Verbinski’s film appears to take far more pleasure in conspiratorially winking at Mom and Dad than playing peek-a-boo with Junior.
All children’s movies include material specifically geared toward older viewers, to varying extents. To cite a non-cinematic example, Scout Finch’s limited point-of-view in the perennial English class assignment To Kill A Mockingbird leaves savvy readers to read between the lines and understand that the word the young girl hears as “morphodite” is in fact “hermaphrodite.” Kid-leaning programming smuggles in mature little details like this with surprising frequency, too. Indeed, entire novelty web sites have sprung up just to catalogue instances of jokes in childhood classics that would otherwise sail over the ostensible core viewership’s tiny, squishy heads. These sites often focus on off-color humor subtle enough to get by censors and kids alike, but sometimes that “something for the parents” can be as innocuous as a subtext too heady for younglings to grasp. Somewhere around your fifteenth or sixteenth birthday, The Incredibles magically changes from a comic-book thrill ride to a razor-sharp inspection of mid-life ennui.
Rango fully embraces the parts of itself that kids would otherwise shrug past, placing them front and center. Now, that’s not to say Rango is unfit for young’ns by any stretch of the imagination; the movie’s a blast from start to finish, insatiably creative in its little flourishes of world-building — a villainous snake has a rattle made from pistol cylinders that make menacing reload-clicks when shaken — and gorgeously rendered. But the overall comic sensibility exhibited by Verbinski and his co-writers John Logan and James Ward Byrkit (who’d go on to direct the sci-fi thought experiment Coherence, an excellent movie that more people should really get around to seeing), as well as the resolute commitment to pop-cultural esotericism expose what might appear to be a kid’s lark as a covert treat for cine-literate parents.