I wasn’t sure I was gong to have anything to say about Rango. Turns out I did, in a comment to this blog post (Note: broken link as of Jan. 7, 2018. -SM) discussing the (possibly) racist shading in the movie. I’m putting it here, too.
(lightly edited) I don’t agree that the movie is racist. That’s a pretty heavy charge to lay on a movie. Comedy deals in types, and in the dissonance between what’s expected and what happens. My perspective on this is informed by my time founding a student humor magazine. When I first saw Wounded Bird, I thought something along the lines of, “eesh, another Magical Native American.” But with dialog like this:
Rango: (as Wounded Bird scatters feathers into the wind) I see you’re communicating with the great spirits.
Wounded Bird: No. I’m molting. It means I’m ready to mate.
…it’s difficult for me to see the character as a stereotype. The other characters, particularly Rango (who’s pretty unaware about most things, except after the fact), tend to see Wounded Bird in terms of the stereotype, but the movie itself presents him as something more. At least as much as such a thing is possible for a second- or third-tier character.
The Mayor, as a tortoise, is presented as the only one who was there before there was even a town. He’s older than Dirt, you see. (Of course you do.) He’s both very old, and he’s in a wheel chair. It’s unclear to me why these facts about the character have to be an –ism of any stripe. Neither his age nor the fact he’s in a wheel chair prevent him from pursuing (and nearly attaining) his goals. Why is he in a wheel chair? We don’t know, since there’s no in-story explanation. My suspicion is the movie put him in a wheel chair, at least in part, to short circuit any easy jokes about slow-moving tortoises. (And I think Tom in a comment above makes a good point about Mr. Potter.)
It’s a movie that takes place in the American southwest, right? There’s a mariachi band and an armadillo, and they speak with Mexican accents. Is there more to the stereotype in the presentation than the way they speak? Is the failing that these characters aren’t major players in the story? The owls are a chorus, and the armadillo is an animal guide/wisdom elder ala Campbell. But you know these things. In this case, you’re seeing stereotypes where I see archetypes.
Throughout the movie, the owls are telling us that it’s Rango’s story. When Rango leaves town and finds the Man With No Name, er… The Sprit of the West, he learns the lesson: nobody can leave his (her) own story. As you point out, it takes heroism on the part of lots of characters, and no less from the women in the story than from the men. But it’s Rango’s story, and his journey—an incomplete one as he’s still pretty much as unaware at the end as he his at the beginning—is the story we’re dealing with. This is a parody of the Man With No Name movies (perhaps most directly High Plains Drifter, with overtones of Chinatown), not a parody of The Magnificent Seven (or of The Seven Samurai).
Rango ends the story pretty self-absorbed, but he also ends the story with a dawning understanding that if you put yourself out there and people come to rely on you, then you have to be willing to see it through. Again we viewers are confronted with a situation where Rango has one view of things and we viewers have the rest of the movie telling us that there’s more going on. Indeed, Wounded Bird actually has the line: after the plan of the moment goes wrong, Wounded Bird says something along the lines of what a bad idea it was. Of course he’s the one who actually gets shot, so that actually plays into the stereotype…
Could the movie done better with its types, or challenged its premise or the viewer more? Probably. But I’m not arguing that it’s not as good as it could be, I’m arguing that it’s not racist. Of course you could have been saying that the character Rango (rather than the movie with that title) is racist. In which case, I’ll just say he’s stupid.
(Update 3/9/2011) See also this post from Big Media Vandalism.
When the Tar Baby sequence started, I got nervous. But when I saw what the Tar Baby looked like, I said “OH COME ON, PEOPLE!” Here I was, expecting it to look like Wesley or Miles Davis, and the damn thing doesn’t even look like a person, let alone a Black person. The Disney animators make it react as if it were actually made out of tar. Its movement, and subsequent destruction, become a surreal image that, at least for me, did not evoke anything human.
That’s probably enough.