Animated movie gets too real


When Disney added adult innuendo to its children-friendly tales, they at least made it subtle: A penis-shaped turret on a movie sleeve here (“The Little Mermaid”), a whisper for “good teenagers” to “take off their clothes” there (“Aladdin”).

But with the domination of computer animated films over the PG-rating, kids’ films seem to be more and more geared for the adult in every way except their cartoon style.

Can a four-year-old feel the sense of grief Carl felt when Ellie died in “Up?” Did babies understand the commentary on consumerism Wall-E’s simplistic existence made? I think not.

Leave it to Nickelodeon Studios, director of “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, Gore Verbinski and king of macabre, Johnny Depp, though, to take benign CGI to a new level of dark, ultra-adult comedy in its recent release “Rango.”

The protagonist lizard of the movie (Johnny Depp) is thrust from his little tank life into the desert heat. The comforts of his naked Barbie torso and Plexiglas tank no longer are consolatory; in fact, he molts within ten seconds of being in the hot sun.

His new setting of the wide-open west is, of course, symbolic of little lizard man’s own duty: to go west, to forge an identity that he has neglected within the complacent existence of his cage.

In true bildungsroman style, the pet lizard creates an identity—the gun-slinging “Rango,” as he calls himself. His persona is challenged by the demanding circumstances of his new surroundings and Rango must fully assume the identity he has asserted for himself (without losing some inherent compassion and strength of character he had all along).

The plot is simple, but make no mistake; “Rango” is a serious film with serious chops. Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-western cinematography oozes in “Rango:” shots through nooses add a sense of foreboding, even as animated and wide-angle views of the desert recreate, true-to-life, the desolation of the wild west.

Adults can follow the mature camera work like a movie; children follow the thirsty little lizard, shown with intense detail in every molting scale. Everyone is happy.

But “Rango” is anything but happy throughout much of the harrowing film, and it is anything but a movie for the kids.

Its creatures are dark, missing body parts and often mutilated. Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) gets a little ultra-sensual licking Rango’s love interest, Beans (Isla Fisher). The film is actually surprisingly scary. As an adult, I was surprised CGI could get so real.

Moreover, “Rango” is fraught with clever allusions to previous adult-rated movies. A CGI Johnny Depp a la “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” speeds through the desert, likely high on methadone; the “Spirit of the West” appears in the god-like human form that bears too-striking a resemblance to Clint Eastwood to ignore; bats used as fighter jets are torn straight from “Apocalypse Now’s” Flight of the Valkyries.

Allusions, when we understand them, are rewarding, and these ones feed our adult egos.

To see those allusions in unexpected forms is even more exciting.

Adults can feel like they paid for something actually entertaining while they took the kiddies out.

But sometimes “Rango” caters too much to adults, leading to some botched sexual jokes and a crass, unnecessary mention of genitalia.

I felt the parents in the theater squirm, wondering if they’d have to explain what a mammogram was when they got home. Awkward.

I don’t have kids, though. I don’t go to the movies to satiate anyone but myself. But I’ve always been a Pixar fan. Where is the animated movie for my demographic? I did not find it in “Rango.”

If my cartoon movie caters to adults at every level (except for in the use of child-friendly, anthropomorphic lead roles), isn’t it missing the point?

Where is the whimsy?

Where are the toys coming to life, of the very weight of you picked up and transported by colorful balloons?

Sure, Rango redeems the town of Dirt from the villains and its drought, but I ended the movie missing the plastic Barbie torso, a torso which stood for me as the corpse of “Toy Story,” and the simple, light-hearted days of CGI.

Or maybe I’m just being childish.