Home on the Range
Hell hath no fury like a woman horned
Emru Townsend · April 1, 2004 | From the first flickering images of Disney's Home on the Range, its intentions are writ large: you just know that it wants to be a Warner Bros. cartoon.

That's not a bad thing. Twelve years ago, Aladdin came along, which not only looked a bit like a Looney Tune, it bore signature Warner Bros. traits: it was fast-talking, anachronistic, and appealed to just about everybody. Disney tried again with The Emperor's New Groove in 2000, and they came close: same good points, but it didn't quite jell.

Home on the Range doesn't quite reach the highs of Aladdin (arguably one of the few modern Disney films deserving of the "classic" label), but it acquits itself nicely. Set in the Old West, Home on the Range opens on a little farm named Patch of Heaven, where the matronly cow Mrs. Calloway (imperiously voiced by Dame Judi Dench) presides over the animals along with her flaky assistant bovine, Grace. Calloway's world is upended when a new cow joins the livestock: Maggie, a prize-winning show cow who is equally crass and good-natured. She barely has enough time to be incensed at Maggie's vulgar antics (and instant popularity) when the other hoof drops: the bank is foreclosing on Patch of Heaven unless the owner can somehow raise enough money in three days.

Maggie quickly hatches a plan and soon we're treated to the amusing spectacle of these three very different cows on the road, heading into town to—get this—convince Buck, the sheriff's horse, to convince the sheriff to convince the bank to delay the foreclosure until the cows can raise the money.

Now, at this point I was at a bit of a critical crossroads. About half the jokes up to this point were falling flat for me, and I was equally mixed on the visuals (the handful of chicks in the barnyard were expressive though they only chirped, but I had a hard time warming to the sharp-edged look of the cows). And how were three cows and a horse going to relay such a complicated idea to the sheriff, who can't understand them?

With that last thought, I suddenly realized something: I had no idea what was going to happen next.

I was stunned. Predictability has been a hallmark of the modern Disney film. Even if you don't know exactly what's going to happen next, it's pretty easy to suss out the general direction of things.

Home on the Range
Walt Disney Pictures, 2004
Directed by Will Finn and John Sanford
76 minutes

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But now I didn't know, and savouring that moment of unknowing kept me watching just long enough for the other characters to come into play. The aforementioned Buck (Cuba Gooding Jr., throwing himself into his first voice-acting gig with manic glee), who dreams of high adventure in the wild west to the point of pathological obsession; Rico, consummate bounty hunter and Buck's dream partner/rider; Alameda Slim, the yodelling cattle rustler who looks like a more urbane Nasty Canasta; his three idiot nephews/henchmen; and a lucky peg-legged jackrabbit named... Jack.

Just a few minutes after my epiphany, I was surprised to find myself guffawing at the gags and enjoying the film's only song-and-dance number—not just because it actually fit in with the story, but because for once it made perfect sense for a character to break into song and have thousands of cattle dance in an echo of Dumbo's "Elephants on Parade" number. Best of all, I kept laughing almost all the way through the movie, the loudest at a great Little Caesar reference I didn't see coming.

Unfortunately this is a Disney film, and it's impossible to watch a post-Lion King Disney movie without analyzing it to see if it Means Something, either to the company or the industry. In this case, there was already a bit of both. After Home on the Range, Disney is largely abandoning the traditionally animated feature, capitulating to what they and Dreamworks perceive as the dominance of computer animation. If you're reading this, it's very likely that you already know this and agree with me that it's a damn shame. It's even more of a shame when you look at something like Home on the Range and realize that, with all of its flaws (and it does have some), one of its saving graces is that it isn't a clone of the modern Disney formula.

The thing is, Disney's most interesting, though not necessarily successful, films of the last decade have generally been the ones where either they've stepped a bit farther away from their formula (Tarzan's 88 minutes of story, with no Broadway-style interruptions; Treasure Planet and Lilo & Stitch's science-fiction bent), or allowed their directors some more freedom (Lilo & Stitch, again). These films also weren't perfect (Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which was very unconventional for Disney, was far from it), but that isn't the point. They were all stepping stones toward something newer, better, and exciting. At the end of Home on the Range, my heart's reaction was that Disney was learning from The Emperor's New Groove's mistakes and on their way to making an animated comedy on the level of Aladdin. But my head knew that Disney, in their shortsightedness and unwillingness to admit their own mistakes, cut that future off at the knees. If they're smart, the Mouse House will realize they're on to something and get back in the traditional animation game. If not, Home on the Range isn't too bad a way to ride off into the sunset.
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