Ever since 3-D computer-graphic animation hit the scene with "Toy Story," traditional 2-D animation has seen a decline in acceptance. Witness DreamWorks' 2003 release of "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas." Likewise, there has been a steady drop in the popularity of Western movies over the years. You can just about count the number of new Westerns released in the past year on the finger of one hand. Why, then, did Disney think that a 2-D animated Western would be of much interest to viewers in 2004?
"Home on the Range" is really quite an old-fashioned animated feature in a lot of ways. Not only is it done in now old-fashioned 2-D, but its artistic style is reminiscent of the 1950s, and its plot and characters are purposely taken from the old-fashioned, Hollywood-Western tradition.
Forget about the beautifully detailed backgrounds of the early Disney cartoons. "Home on the Range" uses the starkly simple, stylized backgrounds of Disney's later period and the strongly drawn, sharp-edged, angular facial features of the 50's era. This is not to say that the animation is inferior to Disney's earlier work or to some of Disney's other efforts today (like "The Lion King I and II"), but that it's simply different. It will appeal to different people in different ways. Personally, I have always preferred the ultrarealistic background look of "Snow White" and "Pinocchio," but tastes vary.
The story line for "Home on the Range" is pure Hollywood hokum. Old granny is losing the farm, rustlers and land barons are taking over the countryside, and somebody's got to save the day. Only this time rather than a stalwart, clean-shaven hero rescuing the farm, it's the farm animals themselves, no surprise since animated cartoons have always been big on animals.
Sweet old Pearl Gesner (voiced by Carole Cook) needs $750 or the bank will foreclose on her mortgage and sell her farm at auction. A recent arrival on the farm, Maggie the show cow (Roseanne Barr), gets the bright idea that she and two other cows, Grace (Jennifer Tilly) and Mrs. Calloway (Judi Dench), can go after a nasty varmint named Alameda Slim (Randy Quaid), who has a reward on his head of, you guessed it, $750, and use the money to pay off the debt.
Along the course of the adventure, the three cows meet up with a tough bounty hunter named Rico (Charles Daniels), who looks and talks like Clint Eastwood; a horse named Buck (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who is trying to catch the nefarious Slim for personal glory, not money; a cattle buyer named Wesley (Steve Buscemi), who looks and acts like, well, Steve Buscemi; a peg-legged jack rabbit named Lucky Jack (Charles Haid), who is also a desert shaman; a grumpy goat named Jeb (Joe Flaherty), and various other colorful characters.
Maggie is typically Rosanne; her quips are like listening to a PG-rated version of her stand-up act. Unfortunately, a PG-rated Roseanne is not very funny. Tilly's Grace is a flighty, harebrained blonde, but she's craftier than she appears. And Dench's Mrs. Calloway is all highbrow and upper-class, the polar opposite of the more-vulgar Maggie. The three make an amusing team for about two minutes, and then the act wear thin.
Since this is a full-length Disney animation, it comes complete with music. Original songs and music are by Glenn Slater and Alan Menken, and they include "A Little Patch of Heaven," "Yodel-Adle-Eedle-Idle-Oo," "Will the Sun Ever Shine Again," "Wherever the Trail May Lead," and "Anytime You Need a Friend." Plus the standard, "Home on the Range." Among the performers doing the vocals are K.D. Lang ("Little Patch"), Bonnie Raitt ("Will the Sun"), and Tim McGraw ("Where the Trail"). I wish I could say that any of these tunes were memorable, but they aren't. The best I can say is that none of them are completely boring.
Mostly, the film follows the exploits of the three cows as they chase and get chased. But the gags are few and far between, with children's burp jokes the order of the day. The highlight of the film is the yodeling song, sung by the rustlers, but it wasn't enough to keep me interested in the rest of the story.
I did like a climactic thrill ride through a mining tunnel, suggestive of the one in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" but not as exciting; and some references to Eastwood's "Man With No Name" films. And I also liked Rico's final line, "Mother of Mercy, is this end of Rico?" However, since it's a line from Edward G. Robinson as Rico in the 1931 gangster movie "Little Caesar," it's like the Indy and Eastwood references: I can't see too many youngsters getting the humor.
The picture and sound have been mastered to THX specifications, so they are pretty good. Still, one can only do so much with what you are given. I found the video very bright, which is appropriate to a cartoon, but very slightly rough, too, surprising for an anamorphic transfer of an animation. The fact that the studio used an average bit rate for the reproduction may have something to do with it. I also had to question Disney's claim on the keep case that the movie is presented in a "family-friendly widescreen (1.66:1)." The fact is, I measured its dimensions across my standard, Sony XBR television and found the movie had a 1.74:1 ratio, a wider image than they allege. And what makes any screen size more "family-friendly" than another? I mean, Disney used to say on their DVD cases that their so-called fullscreen or pan-and-scan renderings were "family-friendly." The term seems vaguely condescending to me, in any case.
The deep bass on the disc is exceptionally strong, which came as a pleasant surprise considering this is a children's cartoon and all. In addition, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio reproduction occasionally puts the surrounds to good use for various animal sounds and environmental noises, another pleasant surprise. However, I was not aware of the surrounds being employed too consistently. When the back speakers are used to advantage, they're very, very good; when they're not, the sound is only so-so.
The film may be brief at seventy-six minutes, but the Disney folks load up the rest of the disc space with plenty of extra materials. First, there's an audio commentary with producer Alice Dewey and co-writers and co-directors Will Finn and John Sanford. Second, there's a bonus animated short, "A Dairy Tale: The Three Little Pigs." Third, there's a fun-and-games department that includes "The Joke Corral," a cute little collection of juvenile gags; the "Yodel Memory Game"; and the "Yodel Maker," the latter a DVD-ROM feature. Fourth, there's a music video, "Anytime You Need A Friend," with the Beu Sisters. Fifth, there are four deleted scenes with a filmmaker introduction. Sixth, there's a sixteen-minute behind-the-scenes promotional featurette, "Trailblazers: The Making of Home on the Range." Seventh, there's an "Art Review," ten minutes of artwork from the picture. Then, to complete the package, there are twenty-nine scene selections; English and French spoken languages; English captions for the hearing impaired; a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual calibration tests; and some Sneak Peeks at other Disney titles, but only a look at the soundtrack album for "Home on the Range," no theatrical trailer.
I was not particularly interested in most of "Home on the Range," possibly because I took no interest in any of the main characters and found much of the action and humor rather immature even by cartoon standards. Of course, the movie was made primarily for kids, so youngsters won't mind the silliness; but I doubt they'll understand the old Western-movie stereotypes and clichés they've never heard of. I can only assume that that was the part meant for adults. A little something for everybody, I guess. Just too little.