Home on the Range marked the end of an era, and boy do I wish the era ended with something better than this. Home on the Range was Disney‘s final foray into hand-drawn animation (before The Princess and the Frog closed the book definitively), and it’s nothing to write home about. I’ve been mentioning Disney’s inability to ascertain what’s hip with kids, and with this movie Disney says “F*** it” and goes the Nickelodeon route. (It didn’t help matters, at the time, that Nick had its own talking cow movie in theaters). The songs sung by outside singers are good, but the jokes aren’t funny, the story is repetitive, and the voice cast will make you say, “They went from Joseph Gordon-Levitt to this?” Disney briefly returned to hand-drawn animation, and that’s was the fitting conclusion we deserved; Home on the Range isn’t.
When sweet farm, Little Patch of Heaven, is set to be foreclosed on, a group of sassy cows go looking to collect a bounty on the notorious cattle rustler, Alameda Slim (voiced by Randy Quaid).
The dismal financial failure of Home on the Range is commonly cited as the reason Disney abandoned hand-drawn animation. If you’ve read my reviews over the last month then you understand the writing was on the wall well before this. Home on the Range’s original plot was a take on the Pied Piper of Hamlin involving a group of children, but apparently that was too good (and then-CEO Michael Eisner feared audiences would turn away from a story involving the death of children), and thus the story was vastly reworked. IMDB states there’s still elements of the Pied Piper plot, but if so I couldn’t decipher them. Disney didn’t care about this movie by the vocal cast, which would have been great if this was 1997. You have Roseanne Barr playing lead cow, Maggie; Cuba Gooding Jr. as heroic horse Buck, and Randy Quaid as villain Alameda Slim. Suffice it to say, Quaid didn’t make my list of best Disney villain voices. The appearance of Dame Judi Dench as the uptight member of the group, Mrs. Caloway, provides a dash of class, but creates a divide between her smooth vocals and the brashness of the others. Dench’s voice deserves to be in a better caliber of Disney feature.
On top of the questionable cast, there’s humor that’s un-Disney in the extreme. I’m all for stretching boundaries, but when does it become crass? Disney once prided itself on never treating kids like morons, and they never devolved into gross-out humor like other studios (coughNickelodeoncough). The opening joke – earning the movie a PG rating – is about the size of Maggie’s….udders: “Yes, they’re real. Now stop starin’.” Really, you want to explain to children why that’s funny? There’s other digs at women, including a “joke” about the female cows being on a saloon stage, right next to a group of zaftig burlesque dancers. It’s funny because the human women are fat, and they’re standing next to cows! And let’s not disregard all the jokes about burping, the topping on a cake of stupidity that’s enough to give you a stomach-ache.
As far as the plot goes there’s an equal balance of too much and not enough. Maggie is introduced in the movie’s opening moments, and the minute she steps foot on the threshold of Little Patch of Heaven, they literally have to sell the farm. Maggie introduces the idea of going to a fair and winning a contest, which presents shades of Charlotte’s Web. However, they saunter into town (apparently these cows aren’t confined by fences. No wonder Slim has made so much money on stealing cattle, they just walk out!), and decide the idea won’t work for…reasons, and quickly abandon it. Maggie soon gets an even better idea to hunt down Alameda Slim and collect the bounty that, wouldn’t you know, is the same amount as the mortgage on the farm. Again, this premise is so simplistic it treats the audience like they’re babies. There’s no thought, originality, or care presented at all. Once the trio of cows go on their adventure there’s yodeling baddies – because yodeling’s funny apparently – and a weird gangster character voiced by Steve Buscemi. When they rewrote the script did they throw in anything that was deemed humorous?
The side characters also derive from Charlotte’s Web, and provide some humor. The best part of Home on the Range is the music, which should have stuck to off-screen presentation. The songs, sung by k.d. Lang, Bonnie Raitt and a few other country luminaries is bouncy, charming, and old-fashioned in the right ways. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear Johnny Cash if this was produced earlier in the Disney canon. The songs are torn asunder when they’re sung by characters like Quaid, who obviously isn’t a singer.
If you can get behind a premise about talking cows involving breast jokes, and the like then Home on the Range is for you. For someone whose followed Disney’s trajectory, everything about it is lacking; from the animation – which looks like Warner Brothers – to the narration technique reused from Emperor’s New Groove, everything about this feels second-tier. With the knowledge that hand-drawn animation was going to shut down, I have to wonder if Disney decided they weren’t going to spend any money and turn this into the scapegoat. We still have one final hand-drawn film in the canon, but this was the straw that broke the cash cow’s back.
NEXT WEEK: CGI full-time with Chicken Little
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.