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Home on the Range (2004)  Print E-mail
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 02 April 2004

Supposedly “Home on the Range” is the last standard animated cartoon—that is, consisting of hand-made drawings, no computers involved—ever to be made by the Disney Studio. This is like Ford announcing they’re only going to be making trucks from now on: it is the end of an era. The Disney studio proved that cartoons could be done as feature films, and from 1938 until a few years ago, such movies were their principal claim to fame.

The traditionally-animated “Treasure Planet” did spectacularly badly at the boxoffice while “Finding Nemo” (in computer graphics animation) became one of the biggest grossing movies in entertainment history, perhaps THE biggest. The yahoos who now run Disney decided that this proved that 2D (cartoon) animation was dead, and that CG animation was the only way to go. This is a foolish, short-sighted decision that ignores tradition and insults the Disney name. It also ignores the fact that the 2D “Lilo & Stitch” was a major hit, and that “Brother Bear,” though not a big winner in the US, went on to gross $200 million world-wide—before it went to video.

“Home on the Range” is a tepid little film, not bad, but not particularly good, either; it’s not quite an ignoble conclusion to the Disney tradition, but it’s not going out on a high note, either. One problem is that the very basis of the movie isn’t exactly exciting: a trio of milk cows decide to save their idyllic home farm from being sold at auction. Ten years ago, cows, particularly black-and-white cows, went through a brief vogue as the source of oddball humor. It was hard to explain then, though widespread; it’s even harder to justify making cows the heroines of “Home on the Range.”

Things aren’t helped by having Roseanne Barr (she’s now using that last name again) provide the voice for Maggie, the central heroine. Roseanne’s voice is nasal and whiny, at odds with Maggie’s personality. Surely better voice actors were available? Judi Dench as Mrs. Caloway, the cow in the hat, and Jennifer Tilly as flower child Grace fare much better, and your teeth don’t grate when they talk.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. is terrific as the voice of high-spirited stallion Buck, full of himself and rarin’ for action. Just his delivery alone provides quite a few laughs. Randy Quaid is the voice of Alameda Slim, the rotund wrestler who’s the villain of the piece, and he brings a lot to the job. Other voices are provided by Steve Buscemi (born to be a cartoon voice), Lance LeGault, Charles Dennis, Estelle Harris, Marshall Efron, Charles Haid and others.

The movie was written and directed by Will Finn and John Sanford, both making their debuts as directors after long career in other jobs at Disney. The movie is amiable and fun to watch, but the basic story is weak; as a result, “Home on the Range” doesn’t exactly have a strong narrative thrust. It ambles like its three heroines, who themselves are not particularly appealing.

Maggie is somewhat boastful, having been “the original Mrs. Happy Heifer,” a prize-winning milk cow. (She’s left at Little Patch of Heaven farm when her original owner goes bust after all his cattle are rustled by Alameda Slim.) When Pearl (Carole Cook), the tough old lady owner of Patch, finds out her farm is to be sold at auction, Maggie instantly determines to save it by capturing Alameda Slim and claiming the reward, which is just the amount Pearl needs. Mrs. Caloway, with her inexplicable British accent, considers herself the animal boss of Patch, signified by her straw hat. Grace is a New Age cow, spacey and sweet. By having Maggie come to Patch and then take over at once makes for somewhat awkward plotting, but the movie gamely sails over this.

In Chugwater, the nearest town, there’s a traditional Western barroom brawl. Buck, the sheriff’s horse, who fancies himself a karate expert, is frantically awaiting the rival of mysterious lawman Rico (Charles Dennis doing Clint Eastwood), who’s so famous for bringing in the bad guys that even the local flies are in awe of him. But to Buck’s shame, Rico continues on with his original horse.

Maggie, Mrs. Caloway and Grace want to track down Alameda Slim and invite Buck to join them. But he feels superior to the cows, even though it’s pointed out “everybody knows bovines are the most intelligent animals in the West.” He rejects their offer, and does finally end up as Rico’s mount. (The animals talk only to other animals, but they can talk to ALL other animals. So how does Maggie plan to claim the reward?)

We finally learn the dreaded secret of Alameda Slim’s rustling abilities, and it plunges the movie headlong into surrealism, providing the best scenes. He yodels. He yodels so well that cattle are instantly hypnotized into doing whatever he wants. At this point, the color styling, already bright with vivid southwestern colors, goes wacky; the cows blink on and off in neon colors like so many squids. They march about in geometric formations like the pink elephants in “Dumbo.” This is so vivid and unexpected that it knocks the movie off its own rails for a few minutes.

With his hayseed henchmen, the Willies (all voiced by Sam J. Levine), Slim takes the cattle to a hard-to-reach hideaway through which runs, peculiarly, a railroad line. So how hard to reach can it be? Anyway, the cows and Buck, on his own again, have to get past a buffalo guard to reach Slim’s hideout. There is, of course, a chase, a runaway train, a stampede and other traditional Western action before everything wraps up.

Disney is more or less tossing “Home on the Range” away. First, there’s that generic title, already used for Westerns starring Monte Hale and Randolph Scott, not to mention a previous cartoon short directed by Rudolf Ising. The famous song is indeed sung, but only briefly. The other songs have music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater. The three principal songs are sung by k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt and Tim McGraw, but only “Little Patch of Heaven” seems authentically Western.

The animation, by the usual gigantic Disney staff, is excellent, though at times it seems oddly limited, and apart from Slim’s hypnotic yodel, there are no sequences outstanding for their animation. The design is awkward. In the poster of the three cows’ heads, it damned near impossible to tell that they are, in fact, cows. In the film, the design is more workable; they do walk on all fours and have prominent udders, particularly Maggie (“yes,” she boasts, “they’re real”). The color styling is excellent, far more appropriate for a story set in the Southwest than the muted tones of “Spirit.” And, as mentioned, the color stylists really cut loose in the rustling scene.

The characters are colorful and sometimes amusing; the baby pigs at the farm look exactly like little piggy banks, without slots in the back. The designs are broad and deliberately stereotyped (a billy goat with a beard and a fondness for tin cans), but bright and sassy as well. The whole picture has a sparkle in terms of characterization, although this is at odds a bit with the lack of narrative drive. One of the funniest bits is one of the quickest, when Buck instantly convinces Rico’s steed that he has to go away right now, very fast. The bits with the hyper-masculine buffalo Junior are also very good, but gags about a pair of randy bulls tend to fall flat.

Disney seems to be virtually dumping the movie; it’s uncommon for a film aimed at kids to be released when they’re still in school. But then again, if it were to be a big hit, then all this sage thinking about how the world doesn’t want traditional animation would be too easily proved as fallacious as it really is.

But take the kids; it’s not a great Disney cartoon movie, but it is definitely a Disney cartoon movie: technically excellent with lots of amusing characters and situations. “Lilo & Stitch” it ain’t, but it’s still better than any 2D feature released so far by DreamWorks.







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