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.
Rango thrives on muttered asides rather than punch lines, and favors cool wit over gregariousness. As the Johnny Depp-voiced chameleon stumbles between inadvertent triumphs that thrust him into a desert community’s sheriff’s post in spite of himself, he’s good for a nice pratfall and Kermit-esque wail to go along with it. But a quick comment about how changing his skin-color is “more of an art than a science” for chameleons more accurately typifies the sort of quip Rango finds funny. As our would-be hero doffs his cap to a young admirer, he advises him, “Now remember, son: stay in school, eat your veggies, and burn everything but Shakespeare.” It’s a good line, but the last bit is especially telling. The Shakespeare reference gives it the vibe of a nerd’s impression of a cool one-liner, rather than a cool one-liner. And to make matters even less kid-friendly, the characters are given to bouts of baroquely hyper-literate Deadwood-speak, with characters crafting sentences as elaborately adorned as wrought-iron fences.
Though that’s more a function of this film’s bone-deep generic heritage than pure humor. Rango isn’t just a Western-influenced romp, and it’s not even a Western. It’s a densely referential love letter to the Western as a filmmaking tradition, to the point where a functional knowledge of spaghetti Westerns is practically a prerequisite for fully enjoying the film. Extremely specific cultural referents inform just about every scene, starting from the top-down with Rango’s name, a likely portmanteau of Django from Sergio Corbucci’s film of the same name and Ringo from Duccio Tessari’s A Pistol For Ringo. But the art design, the fashion, the larger outlay of the plot (which bears a shockingly precise resemblance to Mad Max: Fury Road for viewers in 2016, down to some seriously-freaky particulars), it all harkens back to the cowboys-and-bandits flicks of Hollywood past. And beyond the long-form Western homage, the film promotes a broader commitment to pop-culture passion as well. Deep in the film, Rango asks a mysterious traveler if he’s in heaven, to which the man with no name (who also happens to be The Man With No Name) responds, “If it was, we’d be eating Pop-Tarts with Kim Novak.” Show me a child who understands why that is funny and I will show you a miniature adult with the disorder from Orphan that’s probably planning on murdering you.
References on that level of obscurity can be good for growing boys and girls, if only because they drive inquiring minds to Google, the ideal gateway for fledgling cinephiles. More than that, these nods to entertainment detritus of bygone eras keep older viewers engaged and turn the process of watching movies with a child into a shared joy, and not the torrent of jeering pain well-known to all parents with kids currently going through a Minions phase. Parents provide their offspring with a cultural diet not too different from what goes on their dinnerplate, hopefully something that provides a little substance and can still be palatable to an undeveloped palate. Rango doesn’t just drizzle some melted cheese onto broccoli and hope the young ones will eat it anyway. It’s a dish fit for parents and kids alike, one that a person never outgrows, only learns to appreciate in new and more sophisticated ways. You know, like spaghetti.