“Call me crazy, but I think these cows got it in for me!” – Alameda Slim
If Chicken Little were to be Disney’s first film in its new, computer animated era, then there must have been a film that marked the end of the Hand Drawn era. That film was Home on the Range, released in 2004. Home on the Range was announced by Disney as their last foray into the Ink and Paint pot, and the final nail in the 2D animated film coffin. This was all, of course, before the magical fairies from the land of Pixar descended upon the Disney Studio and reversed this strict finality.
Our story begins with Maggie, a snarky, prize-winning show cow, who is being sold because her owner’s cattle was completely stolen by the West’s most wanted man, Alameda Slim. She is given to Patch of Heaven, a small farm owned by an elderly woman. Her brash, fun-loving style makes her popular among the farm, upsetting Mrs. Calloway, the strict, elegant leader of the farm as well as a fellow cow. When the animals learn that Patch of Heaven is going to be sold off by the bank, Maggie leads Mrs. Calloway and Grace, a dim witted, tone deaf cow with a heart of gold, out into the wilderness in order to find some way to save the farm. They eventually figure out that if they capture Alameda Slim, they will have just enough money to help buy back the farm. However, they have to get past Buck, a horse who desires nothing more than to be remembered as a legend, who has been assigned to the legendary bounty hunter Rico, and have to deal with the magical ability that allows Slim to steal 500 cattle at a time.
The Willie Brothers, Slim’s henchmen, kill every time they are on-screen. Sure, as henchmen, they aren’t the most defined characters, but boy are they funny. They are well voiced, well animated, and play really well off of Slim. To me, they are the best thing to come out of this film, and are sorely underused.
The Western setting is used to the fullest effect, with an almost stunning array of sets. The color palate of orange and red is obviously used for the backgrounds, given the American West setting, but there is something about that mix that really creates beautiful and eye-popping drawings. The backgrounds are very stylized, perfectly mixing the natural beauty of the West with a style that can only be done by animation. This is especially noticeable in the film’s opening sequence, where the lack of character and plot allows the art to really shine. Though Home on the Range was meant to be last Traditionally Animated film, it certainly shows what Traditional Animation can do.
Finally, I have to give props to the great choreography of the action sequences. You may be thinking “What does he mean by choreography?” When I say choreography, I mean how the sequences are set up in terms of both the actual visuals and how the individual storylines come together throughout the action. This is especially important in Home on the Range, where alongside the Cows’ story, the villains, Buck, and Rico are all a part of the action. The way that all of these characters meet up in both of the film’s later action sequences is extremely well done, and make these sequences some of the best.
In my Black Cauldron review, I made a brief mention of the film’s bad voice acting. Home on the Range represents the other end of that spectrum: celebrity voice acting. Let me make one thing clear first: I am not against celebrity voice acting. Some of the greatest performances of all of animation history have come from famous actors and celebrities. Robin Williams, Cliff Edwards, and Mandy Moore did wonders with their roles. What makes The Genie, Jiminy Cricket, and Rapunzel great characters are not the voice actors, but their character, their personality, their journey and their reaction to it. Home on the Range fails to make great character.
Maggie never feels like Maggie, like her own, distinct character. She just feels like Roseanne Barr doing her usual shtick. Buck never feels like a horse longing for fame. He just feels like Cuba Gooding Jr. Even Judi Dench can’t make Mrs. Calloway seem like anything else other than Judi Dench. This is one of those animated film (and honestly, the only in Disney history to do so) where the script relies too heavily on celebrities being themselves rather than playing the character. This weakens the characters and does not allow the character to grow and become their own thing. It’d feel like the same thing if it was just Roseanne Barr, Judi Dench, Jennifer Tilly, and Cuba Gooding Jr. running around the desert instead of their animated, animal counterparts.
Another character hinderance is that, in a similar sense to Chicken Little and The Black Cauldron, we are never really given back story for any of the characters. We never see Maggie’s place on her own farm before the attack. What was her place? How is Patch of Heaven different from the previous place? We see barely 3 minutes of Mrs. Calloway and Grace on Patch of Heaven before Maggie shows up. What is Mrs. Calloway’s and Grace’s view of their own roles before Maggie enters? We never see Buck in action before his big hero journey. What makes him see his life as boring and unheroic? As a former screenwriting teacher of mine would say, there isn’t enough Status Quo. We don’t get a feel for who Maggie, Buck and the others are, so we are not able to connect with their reaction to change and their eventual journeys.
(I just realized that both Home on the Range and Chicken Little have a character named Buck. Two straight films with a character named Buck. Buck a popular name?)
Finally, Home on the Range features another weak Disney villain in Alameda Slim. Though certainly better than the Horned King, Slim would be much better if were a bit more defined. We get one passing reference to why he wants to take over the
World, I mean, West. A flashback, or some sort of stronger Status Quo for the character would do wonders for his believability as a villain. He makes revenge a point, but it is never really felt as a true motivation, just put there to create motivation, to tell about motivation. Also, it is the bank that is closing Patch of Heaven, not Slim’s work. I feel this undercuts his role as the villain. Sure, he is a villain, but this makes the desire for him to see him captured greatly lessened.
(A very minor grievance: Slim’s magical yodeling is sung differently each time, usually to different famous tune. I think it would be more believable if it was one single yodeling song that hypnotized the cows. Also, am I the only one to find it weird that a cow wears a hat?)
BEST SCENE AND SONG
The film’s best scene is its first of two finale chase scenes, as I mentioned above. Really well done.
We finally are at our first musical! When considering Best Song, since I am looking at the film and not the soundtrack, I’m judging based on the action on-screen as well as the song itself.
This is an Alan Menken musical, and while it is his weakest Disney effort, it isn’t bad. The songs are listenable, just not as memorable or catchy as his previous or later work. The film’s best song is Slim’s “Yodel-Adle-Eedle-Idle-Oo” which features Animation in the Disney tradition of experimental and crazy.
I’m really glad that Home on the Range wasn’t the last Traditionally Animated film from the company that has perfected the art. While the film certainly isn’t unwatchable, and in fact has its great moments and characters, it would have been a sad end of an era.