Disney Animated Features
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Release Date: 2 April 2004
So this is it. Or, perhaps the question is, is this it?
For the foreseeable future, Home on the Range will be the last Disney feature film to be animated in the traditional hand-drawn style (aside from the lower-quality offerings from the Television Animation department, which usually go straight to video). Believing that the handwriting is on the wall (in the form of Dreamworks/PDI (Antz, the Shrek films), Fox/Blue Sky (Robots and Ice Age) and even Disney/Pixar), Disney has put all of its feature animation eggs in the computer animation basket.
Some feel that there is still a market for traditional animation; computer animation is impressive but not necessarily an adequate replacement. Disney apparently feels that their Television Animation offerings can meet whatever demand there is for the older style.
Whatever one's individual feelings on the subject, though, it's clear this film (and the next, Chicken Little) represents a major milestone in Disney history -- and indeed, in animation history as well.
So, what kind of send-off is Home on the Range for Disney's long history of animated classics?
Unfortunately, the film doesn't quite live up to its predecessors' legacy. First, it is indeed a funny, frenetic romp through the Old West, with very well-animated special effects and backgrounds. The broad characterizations, meandering plot, exaggerated character designs, and endless parade of groan-worthy bovine puns, though, make it more reminiscent of Disney's animated shorts from the 1940's than of its recent feature films.
Maggie is a prize show cow somewhere in the Old West. She and her owner return from a show one day to find the rest of the herd gone, stolen by cattle rustler Alameda Slim. Slim's been striking at ranches all over the area, then secretly buying the property at auction when the ranches are foreclosed upon.
Alameda Slim's secret weapon is his hypnotic yodel. Yes, you read that right; Slim is an obese, goateed, Texan yodeler. If that seems ridiculous, it is, but it's so absurd that it actually works, believe it or not. Anyway, with his hypnotic yodelling, he can lead off entire herds of cattle with very little effort.
Well, without a ranch, Maggie's owner must leave her at a small homestead called "Patch of Heaven." Run by a kind old lady named Pearl, Patch of Heaven has just two dairy cows and a small assortment of chickens and pigs. Maggie's boisterous personality doesn't mesh well with her new barnmates, Mrs. Calloway (a kind but regimented matriarch) and Grace (a serene, tone deaf new ager). But when the farm is threatened with foreclosure, it's Maggie who convinces the other two to find Alameda Slim and capture him for the $750 bounty on his head. The three cows will have to learn to work together and use their individual talents if they're to have any hope of saving Patch of Heaven.
Unlike Disney's previous film, Brother Bear, this one is loaded with celebrity voices. None other than Roseanne herself lends her voice to the outspoken, crude Maggie. It was a daring choice, and it paid off in an excellent performance. Dame Jude Dench ('M' in the recent James Bond flicks) provides a quiet British authority for Mrs. Calloway's voice, and Jennifer Tilly (Cecilia in Monsters, Inc.) voices Grace as someone who sounds like an airhead but really isn't (much like Tilly herself).
Alameda Slim's southwestern twang (although not his impressive yodel) is provided by film veteran Randy Quaid, in his first animated role. Also along for the ride is Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Buck, a horse with delusions of grandeur who alternately helps and hinders the trio of cows in their quest.
The list of bit parts is also star-studded, with Joe Flaherty as a cantankerous goat (this is the second Disney film in a row with an SCTV alum in the cast), Estelle Harris as a chicken, and former Texas governor Ann Richards as a saloon owner. Patrick Warburton (Kronk in The Emperor's New Groove) and Steve Buscemi have bit parts.
The music is by Disney legend Alan Menken, returning to the Disney keyboard for the first time since 1997's Hercules, with lyrics by Glenn Slater. The opening number, "Patch of Heaven," sung by k.d. lang, is catchy and fun. The rest of the music, though, is largely forgettable, despite the fact that country-western stars Bonnie Raitt, Tim McGraw, and The Beu Sisters provide the vocals. It's a bit of a departure for Disney to use star musicians who didn't also voice characters in the movie, though it has been done before (Phil Collins sang his own compositions in Tarzan, Huey Lewis and Ruth Pointer each had a song in Oliver and Company, and Maurice Chevalier sang the title song for The Aristocats).
As for awards... well, The Incredibles swept all of the major ones, but Home on the Range wasn't even nominated, aside from a few minor Annie awards. With competition from Shark Tale, Shrek 2, and even The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, Home on the Range just got lost in the shuffle.
A note on the rating -- this is Disney's fourth animated feature film to be rated PG (after The Black Cauldron, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet). The movie-going public was left largely scratching their heads over this. The MPAA claimed it was for "brief mild rude humor," possibly due to Maggie commenting on her udder: "Yeah, they're real. Quit staring." It may just be that enough of the humor was borderline that the collective effect pushed it over the edge, but there's nothing that's really objectionable in the film.
Overall, Home on the Range is an amusing, family-friendly film, but it just doesn't stand up as an animated classic. It is to be hoped that, in the future, when computer animation is ubiquitous, Disney's traditionally animated features are remembered by Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King, and not by Home on the Range.
Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.