"Rango" is a new movie that aims for an interesting demographic. Whatever its other charms, it's distinctly anti-religion but pro-spirituality. Which is likely to resonate pretty well with many viewers -- while of course irritating others.
[SPOILER ALERT: I've not going to give up much that I've not seen in the various reviews. But if you're the type who doesn't want anything tipped off, please go see the movie before reading further. I'll wait.]
The film is as good as most of the reviews describe it. In an era of too many needless sequels and "kid-friendly" movies that aim dumb, "Rango" is consistently surprising and often sophisticated. Plus fun and funny. And gorgeously animated.
The plot? Stick with me here: A talking pet chameleon who has apparently gone psychotic from loneliness (conversing with inanimate objects in his terrarium) gets lost in the Mojave Desert. He finds a town of like-sized talking animals and proceeds to have a Wild West adventure with elements pulled from just about every old western you've ever seen. (Plus a heaping helping of the movie "Chinatown.")
The ads tout it as a "family film" but there were parts that made me wonder if they were talking about the Addams Family. There's not much that's remotely cute about "Rango." It's realistically dirty and coarse in a way that made me think of the new version of "True Grit." A couple of the animal characters die in pretty unpleasant ways. Some of the dialogue and many of the cultural references will be utterly lost on 'tweens, much less younger kids. And the ultimate villain, a gigantic rattlesnake with guns where his rattles should be, slithers straight off the screen into your child's nightmares (without any need of 3D, I might add).
In other words, the film earns its PG rating.
Where does religion enter in? Back to the plot: The story centers on a battle for water rights. The little town (called "Dirt") is drying out. At noon every Wednesday, all of the inhabitants grab a bottle and line up. They perform a weirdly slapstick ritual to the tune of the Bob Nolan classic "Cool Water," bowing and bending and whacking each other as they approach a huge (for the animals) rusty pipe.
The mayor (a wonderfully menacing tortoise) and his oddly attired sidekicks produce the valve handle, which has the shape of a circle bifurcated by a cross. The mayor holds it aloft, like a consecrated host (or the way a rabbi holds up the Torah, if that's your ritual of choice).
"Acolytes, prepare the holy spigot," the mayor intones, in case you've missed the point.
But when the valve is turned, nothing emerges but mud. The ritual has failed.
The idea here is clearly to ridicule religious ritual -- to make us laugh at the goofiness.
How about the spiritual elements? They permeate the movie like the heat and the sand. At the very start, the suddenly lost lizard meets a Don Quixote-like armadillo who sets him off on what may as well be called a vision quest.
At one point, the critters all hold hands while one offers up a prayer to the "Spirit of the West" that ends in a quiet "amen." And later, the Spirit manifests itself as a Clint Eastwood clone (in Clint's spaghetti western "Man With No Name" persona) driving a white golf cart with Oscar statues in the back.
Yup, these are funny. But the movie wants us to laugh with
these scenes, not at them. And ultimately, Rango fulfills his vision quest, finds his true and heroic identity, saves the town and gets the girl.
I can find no evidence that either the director (who come up with the idea for the movie), Gore Verbinski, or the script writer, John Logan, have addressed why they played faith issues the way they did.
Some religious movie reviewers have squirmed a bit about "Rango."
From Catholic News Service
: "A reference to the 'face of God' during this episode approaches outright blasphemy."
The official U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website offers a small frown
, saying that its "ill-advised foray into religious humor will jar on the sensibilities of many grownups."
Crosswalk.com inventories religious references: "Discussion of the 'spirit of the West'; the mayor says 'people have to believe in something'; the people of Dirt claim a 'great day of deliverance' and 'the time that was foretold,' and shout, 'Hallelujah!'; Rango mistakenly believes another character is 'consulting with the spirits'; mayor says others attribute divine power to him; a villain says, 'I'll take your soul straight down to hell' and suggests hell is his home; water is said to be the town's 'salvation.' "
Movieguide ("the family guide to movies and entertainment") is less bothered
: "Very strong moral worldview with some light Christian, redemptive references and content, including some references to God but references to 'the Spirit of the West' are a little bit ambiguous but in an entertaining way that's endearing."
Christianity Today's Russ Breimeier gives a mostly positive review but notes
: "Even weirder is the scene where the citizens of Dirt line up for their weekly water ration and begin some jerky choreography . . . followed by some hallelujah-smattered liturgy with the Mayor that borders on sacrilege. (In contrast, I found one critter's heartfelt prayer of thankfulness to the 'Spirit of the West' strangely touching, reminiscent of characters in the fiction of C. S. Lewis praying to their own god.)"
So who is the "spiritual but not religious" theme aimed at?
A Newsweek poll in 2009 turned up about 30 percent of Americans who identified as "spiritual but not religious." And last year, the Southern Baptist Convention's LifeWay Christian Resources reported a poll of 18 to 29-year-olds: 72 percent said that they're "really more spiritual than religious."
These are folks who are drawn to the eternal questions of faith but are turned off by some of the specifics of dogma and ritual. The entertainingly animated "Rango" may be drawn explicitly for them.