In March of 2011, Paramount Pictures released an ambitious animated feature called Rango. Directed by Gore Verbinski, of Pirates of the Caribbean fame, the movie stars the voice of Johnny Depp in the role of the titular chameleon, who is accidentally stranded in the Mojave Desert. The movie is technically set in modern times, but when Rango and his terrarium fall from his owner’s car, he finds himself a fish out of water in a world of desert creatures trapped in the Old West.
Rango opened in first place, selling more tickets than a fellow opener starring Matt Damon (The Adjustment Bureau) and receiving better reviews than usual for a non-Pixar production. Speaking of which, 2011 was one of the rare years in which a Pixar movie was released (Cars 2) but did not earn an Oscar nomination. Rango not only was recognized with a nomination for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, but the movie was considered far and away the frontrunner in the category and indeed won the Oscar.
Nearly a decade later, nobody talks about Rango. Sure, we tweet perfect shots from the film on occasion, but there isn’t any context in which its legacy can flourish online. The movie spawned no sequels (whether it’s because of relatively low worldwide box office or recognition that it’s best left alone) and it comes from a studio (Paramount shingle Nickelodeon Films) with little prestige in the animation and general movie fandom world (Wonder Park is their latest). Most surprisingly, though, Rango barely shows up on movie site rankings of the best-animated features of this century.
Certainly, there is a stigma attached to Depp at the moment, so Rango isn’t about to get any boost in its legacy anytime soon, but even before that blemish showed up on an otherwise flawless film, the thing had kind of fallen by the wayside, not unlike Rango himself at the beginning of his story. When we consider the lack of love overall for animated Westerns, though (and this isn’t to be confused with the term Western Animation), the neglect isn’t too surprising.
Like the Western as a whole, animated entries in the genre had their heyday decades ago. And even then, there wasn’t much interest in feature-length animated Westerns. Of course, for many years, there wasn’t much interest in feature-length animation outside of Disney in general. The lone exception was the 1965 musical indie The Man from Button Willow, which sold itself as “THE most delightful animated adventure since Snow White.” That’s a bit of a reach, but it’s not a bad film.
The same year, over in Italy, West & Soda arrived as, I suppose given its origins, the first animated spaghetti Western. France and Belgium got into the mix in 1971 with Lucky Luke, aka Daisy Town (or, in some forms: Lucky Luke: Daisy Town), an animated Western feature that finally found American audiences via the Disney Channel and subsequent Disney home video release — despite the movie not being a Disney production — with Rich Little providing all the dubbed voices. Disney also imported its first sequel, 1978’s Lucky Luke: Ballad of the Daltons, but not 1983’s The Daltons on the Run.
Disney did venture into Western territory on the big screen much earlier, but its Pecos Bill was merely an animated short film packaged as part of the 1948 anthology release Melody Time. Before and after that, Walt Disney characters Alice (of the Alice Comedies), Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Goofy, and Pluto starred in their own one-reel takes on the genre, just as any Golden Age cartoon icons did, from Felix the Cat to Popeye. The reason a lot of these shorts are dismissed today is that they’re terribly stereotypical, particularly with Native American representation. The genre overall is guilty of such, but animation especially allowed for extra exaggeration.
Most famous of all animated Western shorts — or, at least those with the most famous Western-specific characters — are part of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies franchises. Among these Warner Bros. cartoon brand’s cast of characters is Yosemite Sam, who came into his own (following alternate versions introduced earlier) in 1945’s Hare-Trigger, an eight-minute animated Western that pit the gun-slinging cowboy/prospector against his subsequently longtime adversary Bugs Bunny.
Although Warner Bros. was definitely guilty of bad depictions of Native Americans (1948’s A Feather in His Hare, most notoriously), having their main Western-style character mostly dealing with Bugs kept them from bothering with the “cowboys and Indians” concept. “Cowboys and wisecracking wabbits” was distinctly the interest there. However, even with that direction, you’d get a short like 1960’s Horse Hare, which has Sam leading an army of “Indians,” all horribly racist in their depiction.
Of course, outside of the stereotype embarrassments, after a while children’s entertainment also needed to get away from other staples of the Western. Guns haven’t stopped appearing in cartoons, but they’re not as prevalent as they were especially in the 1980s, and realistic firearms with triggers are particularly rare these days. And a lot of old cartoon cowboys were smokers, which is now a no-no. In fact, Disney has digitally erased the cigarette that was so prominent in Pecos Bill.
But even with tamer treatments of the Western genre and its tropes have just simply been unpopular with wide audiences. In 1991, Universal released a sequel to its phenomenally globally successful animated feature An American Tail, and it was a major disappointment, grossing less than half what the original did. Was it because An American Tail: Fievel Goes West was a Western? Not necessarily. Is it that much worse than the first feature? There’s a comparative lack of wonder and imagination (maybe since Don Bluth didn’t direct the follow-up), but it’s not bad at all. Universal just had the foolish idea of opening it a week after Disney released Beauty and the Beast.
Eleven years later, DreamWorks Animation put out Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and despite earning an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, the movie about a horse in mid-19th-century America wishing to return to the wild received so-so reviews and had only so-so box office success (the film did open a week after Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones and three weeks after Spider-Man). Seventeen years later, while it’s gained a fanbase courtesy of a Netflix spinoff series, Spirit remains one of the worst-performing of all of DreamWorks’ animated features.
Disney also experienced some of their worst reviews and worst box office ever for a theatrical animated feature with their 2004 Western, Home on the Range. This was the norm for the studio’s non-Pixar output in the early 2000s, but even compared to such films as Brother Bear, Treasure Planet, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, this cow-focused family film has a terrible combination of critical and audience reception. Unsurprisingly, Disney’s Pixar feature The Good Dinosaur also has the distinction of being that brand’s least popular effort. And it’s also basically a Western despite being set millions of years ago.
Now the curse of the animated Western strikes Laika. Even with great reviews (though not among the best-received for the studio), their latest stop-motion feature, Missing Link, is a flop at the box office, opening far below any of the company’s output in their relatively short existence. Although not a full-on Western, most of the animated adventure’s second act is set in America’s West in the late 19th century and involves cowboys, saloon fights, and a stagecoach through desert terrain. These are among Missing Link‘s most gorgeous and thrilling moments, but they also may be among its biggest obstacles for lasting success.
The Western genre has had difficulty attracting adult audiences over the years, too — for shame that such films as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Proposition, and last year’s The Rider and The Sisters Brothers didn’t perform better. And attempts at Western blockbusters like The Magnificent Seven and The Lone Ranger falter. Still, we’ve seen better results than with animation, given the accolades and ticket sales for hits like The Revenant, Django Unchained, and the True Grit remake, plus The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which did poorly in theatrical release but is fine streaming on Netflix.
If animated Westerns were more popular, would they foster young fans of the genre who’d grow up to appreciate more live-action Westerns of all kinds? That’s not a certainty, but we can suppose a lack of interest in youth could be a disadvantage to the genre’s potential audience growth and prosperity in the future. Animated features don’t usually work for most genres outside of fantasy, but the Western definitely seems to have it the worst.
Ironically, one of the most popular and iconic animated movie characters of the last 25 years has been a cowboy. Toy Story‘s protagonist, Woody, is a doll of a Western character who is part of an ensemble of all sorts of toys. For those of us who do appreciate the Western and animated entries in the genre, the opening sequence of Toy Story 3 is spectacular. And fans of the franchise likely enjoy it, but what if Pixar made a whole feature set in that imagined universe with the gang going up against the evil Dr. Porkchop? It’d be a hit only because the characters are already so beloved. But maybe not as big a hit as other sequels.
Animated movies involve so much work and cost so much money to produce that studios aren’t going to want to keep trying Westerns if they’re always going to do so poorly. But Netflix could probably get away with it. Otherwise, filmmakers are best off doing short films if they want to make animated Westerns. It worked well enough for Pixar’s Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, who earned an Oscar nomination for their independent 2015 short Borrowed Time. But that one also isn’t for kids anyway. We can presume a feature-length animated Western for adults would be among the least lucrative ideas ever.