Don't look now, but Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS) and Dreamworks Animation SKG (Nasdaq: DWA) are getting a new competitor. You may even have heard of George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic before.

The special effects house has partnered up with distributor Viacom's (NYSE: VIA) Paramount and Nickelodeon studios to come up with Rango, ILM's first animated feature. The movie opens today, sporting a $135 million budget and Academy Award nominee Johnny Depp voicing the lead chameleon. That star power, along with the services of Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski, will be enough to make back the $135 million budget, but that's not what's important here.

You see, Rango is a heck of a proving ground for ILM.

Cartoons have become increasingly eye-catching and realistic over the years, aided by computer graphics fueled by ever-greater hardware horsepower. But this movie takes cartoon realism to a whole new level.

Rango is a paint-by-numbers story of self-discovery and reluctant heroes, acted out by talking animals in a dusty Wild-West setting. Every plot twist is telegraphed miles ahead; it's simple entertainment with low ambitions.

That is, except for the visual department. Early shots in a clean, civilized lizard cage may fool you into expecting just another overly polished pile of mediocrity, but that all changes when our reptilian hero is plunged into the Western desert.

It's dirty. It's grimy. You want to believe in every sand dune and smudge. When Clint Eastwood makes a cameo, it might as well have been the real deal -- the attention to detail is that overwhelming.

Like Peter Jackson's WETA parlayed the Lord of the Rings trilogy into a special-effects powerhouse position, ILM might do the same here in the carton department. Paramount has never done a full-length animated feature before, but might do so again now that there's a terrific production partner on hand. And like I said, that's potentially bad news for Disney and Dreamworks. The old family entertainment dollar only stretches so far, you know?

Want to know more about the cartoon market, and follow it as it unfolds? Add Viacom, Disney, and Dreamworks Animation to your Foolish watchlist.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. Walt Disney and DreamWorks Animation SKG are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Anders would buy stock in Industrial Light and Magic if it ever decided to go public. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.