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Extended Thoughts on ‘Home on the Range’

Home on the Range

Written and directed by Will Finn and John Sanford

Expectations are a dangerous thing, but what’s even more dangerous sometimes is living up to them. In 2004, before John Lasseter and Ed Catmull joined the Walt Disney Company in a more official capacity than just running Pixar, the Walt Disney Feature Animation department was in dire straits. Well, the straits were dire only if you considered yourself a fan of hand-drawn animation. See, the 45th animated film in the Disney canon, Home on the Range was going to be the last hand-drawn animated film released by the company, at least for a long while. (The trend would be reversed in 2009, with The Princess and the Frog.)

Though there had been a few gaps in between movies for the Disney canon over the years, none were as long as the draught between 2004 and 2009 of no Disney hand-drawn features. Granted, other animated films were released to audiences that are considered part of the canon, including Bolt and Chicken Little. But they weren’t hand-drawn; the 5-year gap is still the longest there’s ever been for the company, even during the dark period from the 1960s to the 1980s. Now, I don’t mean to hold up hand-drawn animation as a bastion of creativity. Certainly, one of the reasons why Walt Disney Feature Animation was abandoning the format for computer animation is because Pixar Animation Studios had been beating them at their own game without drawing anything by hand. But the decision by the Disney execs was rash, stupid, and condescending.

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Audiences did not abandon Disney animation because of the format. They abandoned Disney, if we could call it that, because of the content. No one turned away from The Emperor’s New Groove or Brother Bear because they thought, “Ewww, hand-drawn animation? Barf. No thanks.” They turned away from movies like that because they were not very good. (Being fair, I’ve only seen the latter example, and heard mildly positive things about the former. Still, neither of these are considered, I believe, underrated gems.) So automatically assuming it’s anything but the actual story proves that the folks over at Walt Disney Pictures weren’t thinking too clearly in 2004. I’m glad, of course, that as soon as Lasseter and Catmull jumped into the company for real, they wanted hand-drawn animation brought back ASAP. That said, though we’ve gotten The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh in the last 2 years, there’s nothing on the horizon for a return to hand-drawn animation. Hopefully that changes.

But back to Home on the Range, which has the unfortunate luck to be seen as the movie that killed hand-drawn animated features. Or, at least that was what I perceived this movie, about three feisty female cows who team up to save the farm they live in and love so much, to be. Don’t get me wrong: Home on the Range is not a good movie–not good to me, to be fair–but it’s nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be or as bad as my least favorite Disney films. (The Aristocats is the winner. Or loser. You know what I mean.) The worst crime that Home on the Range, written and directed by Will Finn and John Sanford, commits is that it is not ambitious. Ambition doesn’t always save a movie–for an example, you just wait for my discussion of Pete’s Dragon–but I often think that a movie without any ambition, without any passion, without any true reason for being will rankle me more. I may have more to be baffled about with an ambitious failure, but at least someone was trying. No one’s trying here.

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Because no one’s trying, I honestly wonder who the movie is for. In some respects, it’s clear that the target audience is little children. As I said on the show, I’m not a naive fool: Disney animated movies, as with pretty much every animated movie, are targeted first at children. The difference between movies like Home on the Range and movies like Beauty and the Beast is that while children are meant to enjoy both movies, you don’t have to be under the age of 10 to enjoy the latter. You can still appreciate, admire, and love the great Disney movies after you hit puberty, after you go to college, after you get married. Movies like Home on the Range don’t work the same way. You might like them as a kid, but unless you have a strong nostalgic tie, when you watch those movies as an adult, you wonder what the hell you were thinking.

But like I said, I don’t know that a lot of little kids would enjoy Home on the Range, as opposed to being wildly bored by it. Sure, kids like cows and other farm animals, but the actual story of Home on the Range is weirdly dull. Maggie is a show cow who has to be sold because her owner’s lost the other cattle on his farm. She’s sold to Little Patch of Heaven, a dairy farm populated with cows, pigs, ducks, goats, and the like. Until Maggie turns up, the ringleader of the animals is Mrs. Calloway, who is immediately threatened by the presence of this superstar cow. Before the bitterness can pester her too much, she, Maggie, and the ditzy Grace team up to get enough money to save Little Patch of Heaven from being sold at auction. How will cows get money, you ask? Well, it just so happens that the local sheriff will pay the exact amount of money Little Patch of Heaven needs–750 bucks–for the capture of the evil cattle rustler Alameda Slim. And, hey, it just so happens that Alameda Slim is the cattle rustler who stole all of the cattle at the farm Maggie used to live at! Will wonders never cease.

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Writing out the actual story of Home on the Range may make it seem more complicated than it is, but within about 25 of the 75 minutes, that entire plot is dispensed with. The rest of the movie is just about delaying the inevitable. If the story isn’t engaging, could the characters inside of that story be a bit more so? Unfortunately, no. Roseanne Barr, Dame Judi Dench, and Jennifer Tilly–yes, really–are Maggie, Mrs. Calloway, and Grace. While none of them are bad (and I’ll be honest, I truly thought Barr would be horrendous, thanks to her typically nasal voice), there’s nothing remarkable about the performances as well as the character arcs. The rivalry between Maggie and Mrs. Calloway, outside of never seeming fully formed, is also far too reminiscent of the rivalry between Woody and Buzz Lightyear in the first Toy Story film. Though that film didn’t break any amazing new ground by having a rivalry that would end in a true friendship, the specifics of that rivalry are echoed far too much here. We have the leader of the pack being threatened by an interloper who everyone flocks to for being flashy, and then becoming friends after a wild adventure. And then there’s Grace, who’s just the same old boring flaky comic relief.

So maybe the villain, Alameda Slim, is engaging? Not so much. Though pre-insane Randy Quaid does a serviceable job as this odious thief, the main gambit surrounding Alameda Slim, the reason why he’s able to wrangle up so many cattle so quickly, is just weird. It turns out that Alameda Slim is a yodeler. A very good yodeler. In fact, he’s such a good yodeler, you could call him the Pied Piper of yodeling. Only a few seconds of his yodeling can send a cow into a trance and then it will follow him anywhere. Now, I’ll be honest: that is a unique enough twist on the villain to give Finn and Sanford credit. But at the same time, do any kids give a flying fig about yodeling? Yodeling’s goofy to most kids, and a plot about saving a farm from economic downfall is not going to interest them at all.

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With the exception of Alameda Slim’s yodeling prowess, there’s just about zero ambition in this movie. Perhaps the better word is passion, though, because Beauty and the Beast, as an example, is less ambitious than old-fashioned in its storytelling. There is, however, a high amount of passion from behind the scenes that’s evident from the first sequence. Home on the Range, on the other hand, seems to struggle from the word go. Opening sequences are hard to do, but they’re the first and easiest way to get audiences engaged. How I wish that Home on the Range hooked me from its opening. How I wish I’d been wrong about my assumptions. How I wish this movie surpassed my expectations.

– Josh Spiegel