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Alex Stroup, editor

Home on the Range

A little patch of so-so heaven hits theaters

Monday, April 5, 2004
by Alex Stroup, staff writer

Quick—name the last five Disney feature animation releases.

If you could do that without straining much, then you might want to go see Home on the Range. Otherwise you're probably not so immersed in animation that missing this one will cause much bother.

Last year's Brother Bear wasn't very good, but at least Disney was trying to make a film. Home on the Range isn't very good—nor is it very bad—and it feels like it was given up on. At 76 minutes, it feels even shorter and really feels like an extended Looney Tunes cartoon.

©Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Now, there is nothing obviously wrong with an extended Looney Tunes cartoon, but at its best, Disney's animation features have stretched and told big full stories, with a solid narrative and visual elan. For the most part you could take the inidividual scenes in Home on the Range and reorder them or simply remove them and you'd have the same movie. The episodic feeling of the film may be understandable, considering that six people (including the directors, Will Finn and John Sanford) receive story credit. Perhaps they just handed 20 blank pages to each and asked them to come up with something.

Home on the Range mixes the classic comedy western with your typical animated talking animals. Recapping the movie is a tricky affair; it's so short I could practically submit the entire script and still fit within the 1,000-word limit for this column.

The stage is set as Maggie (a cow, also Roseanne Barr) narrates the story of how her original owner lost his farm after his entire herd was cattle-rustled in the dark of night and disappeared without a trace. Unable to afford his ranch, or Maggie (a show cow who slept in a stall rather than the corral), the owner gives her to Pearl (Carole Cook), the single frontierswoman who owns Patch of Heaven.

We're introduced to Patch of Heaven in a song-and-dance number that established that it is a great place to live. Pearl can't understand her animals, but they share the work of the farm and the animals are considered family, not food (I can understand why you'd have chickens, cows, and goats even if you aren't going to eat them, but why would you have a bunch of pigs?).

The livestock members of the family are led by two cows (as we're informed, it is well known that bovines are the cleverest animals of all): the prim and proper Mrs. Calloway (Judi Dench), and the kind-hearted, ditzy Grace (Jennifer Tilly).

Roseanne Barr, Jennifer Tilly, Judi Dench. One of these is not like the others. Actually, while I miss the days when the celebrity voice was reserved for a key sidekick, there is nothing to complain about in the voicework here, and Roseanne's brashness well fits her cow-nterpart.

When they learn that Patch of Heaven is going to be foreclosed and auctioned, the three cows head into town to beg the sheriff's horse (Cuba Gooding, Jr., as a horse too distracted by his dreams of heroism to actually be heroic) to find a way to get them more time. While in town, they see that Alameda Slim (Randy Quaid), the notorious cattle rustler, has a reward of $750 on his head. Coincidentally just the amount that is owed on the farm.

With that, the chase is on—and whatever originality was present is gone. From here on out it is one scene after another of your typical Western comedy gags. Walk into a burlesque show? Check. Mine train chase? Check. Runaway train? Check. Psychedelic cattle rustling? Check.

Wait—that was original. It is in the Alameda Slim character and his method of stealing cattle that a hint of the Disney genius is seen, both in the audacity of the idea and the visual delight with which it was executed. But this bit is only 90-seconds or so, and then it's shut down and we're back to the series of animated shorts.

©Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Finally, one of the big selling points is that the film marks the return of composer Alan Menken to Disney animation (absent from Disney features since 1997's Hercules). Menken, of course, led the resurgence of Disney animation beginning with The Little Mermaid (1989) with partner Howard Ashman. That partnership ended with Ashman's death in 1991 after The Beauty and the Beast, and a strong case could be made that this marked the end of the second coming of Disney musical animation.

The music throughout the movie is spot-on for the comedy western it is trying to be, but there is never really a showstopper tune that must be present in any good musical (such as “Under the Sea” and “Be Our Guest”). Despite an all-star cast of singers (including k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, and Tim McGraw), nothing really sticks out as something you'll immediately recognize in two years, let alone decades from now.

Younger children should enjoy this, and it's quick enough that parents won't regret joining them. The animation is up to Disney standards (though in that angular style of which I'm not so fond) and it is still a big step up from your typical Saturday morning cartoon.

This movie is rated PG, but that mostly just goes to show that the G rating is just about impossible to get any longer for a movie with any real action. Everything is pretty mild and while the jokes try to be somewhat current, an udder joke is about as tasteless as it gets.

Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.


Home on the Range is a Walt Disney Pictures release

Wide theatrical release: Friday, April 2, 2004

Directed and written by Will Finn and John Sanford.

Starring: Judi Dench, Roseanne Barr, Jennifer Tilly, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Randy Quaid.

Rated PG for brief mild rude humor

Running time: 76 minutes

Alex's Rating: 5 out of 10


Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted “information junkie,” Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.

Click here to contact Alex.


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