This feature-length film from Nickelodeon follows an escaped pet chameleon as he struggles for survival in a town called Dirt, where a drought has made water the most valuable commodity. A tall tale and a lucky victory against a hawk catapult the hapless lizard into a job as the town's sheriff. When a robbery leaves the town water bank empty, the sheriff and his posse follow the thieves' trail into the desert. There, he finds clues to a deeper mystery about the source of the town's water. Soon, the law lizard runs afoul of the town's mayor and the fearsome Rattlesnake Jake.
This is an odd film and a surprisingly dark one, with a tendency to veer wildly from the serious to the silly, with not-infrequent detours into the utterly bizarre. Perhaps inevitably by law of averages alone, resonant moments unquestionably abound. Johnny Depp is the backbone of the film, with a role that is equal parts Brave Little Taylor, tall-tale teller and snake-oil salesmen. Respectable support is offered by Ned Beatty as a seemingly charming tortoise (a role which seems a little too familiar so soon after Toy Story 3); Isla Fisher as a lizard with an odd problem holding conversation; Abigail Breslin, dropping in and out opportunistically as a spunky girl of uncertain zoological classification (the fictional Archididelphis invicta, perhaps?), and Bill Nighy voicing a rattlesnake big enough on screen to fit the archetype of Tiamat Primal Chaos. Then there are the little things: The chorus of mariachi owls; a Quixote-esque armadillo; an impressive assortment of toughs and bums, including the reductio ad absurdum of the “arrow through the head” gag; and improbable pyrotechnics from cactus juice and crashing bats. The parade of silliness and strangeness is lent a solid core by a thematic blend of the Old World fairy tale (grue and all) and the Native American vision quest, and by details that, to the sufficiently informed, will ring as historically authentic and all the more entertaining for that. Like, that Shakespearean performances were common in the “Wild West”; gatling guns were deployed by the US Army in the 1800s; and that desert native tribes did hold religious beliefs and rituals centered on their water supply. “Hit or miss” seems to have been the filmmakers' method, and how much one enjoys the film is likely to depend a great deal on one's willingness to put up with the misses. But, it is well worth viewing for a remarkably thoughtful story and assumed world to outshine many a more standard “kiddie” offering.
David N. Brown