Home on the Range (2004)

After the glow of the Renaissance ended in 1999, Disney struggled to claim the next great animated movie. Box office returns after The Lion King steadily declined, but then Fantasia 2000, Dinosaur, The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: the Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, and Brother Bear all were at best mediocre financial successes, with only Lilo and Stitch being a real winner for the company. They were desperate for a win.

What was even more worrisome was the public speculated how soon Disney was going to die. Tourism plummeted after the 9/11 attacks and the parks were feeling the pinch. Their only real hit was 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Michael Eisner’s questionable business practices were well known. Comcast tried to wholly buy out Disney in 2004 before eventually acquiring Universal. And of course, people were wondering out loud what Disney was going to do about computer animation.

Walt always loved dabbling in new technology for his movies and theme park rides. But since Toy Story came into being in 1995, the idea that it would usurp hand-drawn cel animation was a daunting question. It seemed like Disney tried to avoid it for almost a decade. By 2004, they saw Dreamworks Studios release Shrek, which not only was computer animated, not only created by a bitter ex-Disney executive, not only won the first-ever Best Animated Feature Oscar, but also openly mocked Disney films as a whole. An unknown studio called Blue Sky kicked off their Ice Age franchise in 2002. Even Pixar, Disney’s own partner, was threatening to leave Disney due to Eisner’s dealings, and had essentially stolen their thunder with five hit movies in a row. Hand drawn animated films were less and less profitable and audiences just seemed to steer clear of them. So in 2004, when Disney released Home on the Range, it became known that this was officially going to be Disney’s last hand drawn film. (Overturned with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog and 2011’s Winnie the Pooh)

But why this and not one that was one big, glorious sendoff to animation? I have no evidence to support this theory, but I think it just came down to money. I can’t imagine Eisner wanting to spend a dime more than he had to on hand drawn films by this point. Finding information on this movie’s production is incredibly difficult, leading me to think it wasn’t a creative choice that had it turn out this way. Originally, the story started out as a kid from the city dealing with the ghost of a cattle rustler, then it turned into a story about a young bull named Bullets wanting to be like a horse, and it developed into the story we have here. I assume the simple aesthetics of the film were simply cheaper to keep the costs down so they could just get it done and over with so they could hurry up and work on Chicken Little. This movie was panned when it was first released in 2004, but is there gold in them thar frames?

Wrangle your rowdy rancheros!

The plot: Maggie (Roseanne Barr) has been rustled out of her ranch and brought to a dairy farm called Little Patch of Heaven. There, she meets two other cows, the ditzy Grace (Jenifer Tilly) and the cross Mrs. Caloway (Dame Judi Dench). However, the farm is about to be auctioned off and the animals sold off. Maggie suggests they hunt down notorious cattle rustler Alameda Slim (Randy Quaid) and collect the reward money to save the farm. That’s all fine and good until they realize they have to go up against Buck (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the hyperactive sheriff’s horse intent on hunting down Slim himself, flash floods, and a bandit who can hypnotize cows by yodeling.

Saddle up, pardner.

How’s the writing?: Although I have never heard any sort of correlation, there had to have been some inspiration lifted from The Emperor’s New Groove. There just had to be. Disney almost never dipped into straight comedy, so how do you explain Home on the Range‘s irreverent, cynical tone, even the sharp, pointy aesthetic?

I have little issue with the story, because it’s at least serviceable. The real issue is the dialogue, from the snarky lip they give each other to the generally unfunny jokes. Fun fact: the one reason this movie is rated PG is because Maggie shows her udders to the audience and grumbles “Yeah, they’re real. Quit staring.” Nothing but high class stuff here. Of course, it’s Roseanne, so her comedy is crass, but it definitely is devoid of charm and cleverness. Similarly to when she refers to Buck as “Stallion of the Cim-moron”.

I know it’s a wacky movie, with all sorts of nutty, anachronistic gags, much like Hercules or the aforementioned Emperor’s New Groove. This allows the jokes to at least feel appropriate given the tone. And at least the jokes are personality based. But it doesn’t change the fact they’re still kind of head-scratching or otherwise kind of lazy. I mean, the bad guy hypnotizes cows by yodeling! This isn’t exactly elitist stuff here.

Does it give the feels?: It fails pretty bad in a truly hamfisted way. After Maggie, Grace, and Mrs. Caloway lose the trail and almost their lives in a flash flood, Maggie and Caloway butt heads but good, leaving Maggie despondent and saddened. Bonnie Raitt croons “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again”, a decent song that serves its purpose to the story, but the montage itself wants to think it has earned the saddest of sad scenes. It keeps cutting to various characters expressing sadness and heartbreak.

First, it’s Little Patch of Heaven’s owner, Pearl, packing up her things! While it’s raining! While she’s looking at baby photos! She visits their empty stables! Then the animals of the farm all look sad! Then the chicks look sad at Mrs. Caloway’s hat! Then the sheriff looks sad about losing buck! Then Rusty the dog is all misty-eyed because Buck’s gone! Then we see Buck losing face in the rain! Then we see he just looped back around to where he was earlier because he’s apparently lost! Then Maggie is all alone while the others are asleep! It’s just an onslaught of manipulation that just doesn’t work, though it tried hard.

A good comedy can make you feel more empathetic to the characters, because laughter essentially opens up a bridge of emotion between the two parties. It’s why we’re endeared to people who make us laugh. But not only do the characters not make us laugh, but they’re extremely mean-spirited and nasty to each other. Why should I care? If it weren’t the vulgar Maggie or the holier-than-thou Caloway, I’d probably feel something and want them to get out okay, but those two? Not a chance.

Who makes it worth it?: When I was asking myself who I liked best in this movie, I thought a lot about Maggie. Not because I liked her; far from it. I wondered why I had such a hard time bonding with her as a protagonist. She has an element of tragedy to her, but it has little impact on her decisions, reactions, and the story at large. But then I thought about her character, and something clicked: she’s basically Shrek.

Yeah, really think about it. She’s overweight, she belches, she’s snarky, and she’s wholly unashamed of who she is, warts and all. I’m willing to bet Disney watched the gross ogre and tried to apply his traits into a character that could star in a Disney film. What they forgot was Shrek tapped into some basic human desires. Shrek wanted to be left alone and he wanted respect. Maggie, on the other hand, just kind of exists and thrives on being vulgar for the sake of vulgarity. Shrek belches to make his fireplace or to relieve his stomach, Maggie intentionally belches in Caloway’s face while they’re saying sincere goodbyes.

Mrs. Caloway really seems to think herself better than everyone around her. Grace is at least inoffensive, but because of that, she ends up taking a backseat to the others’ barbs, or being made out to look dumb (Come to think of it, characteristic of most Jenifer Tilly roles.). Buck is extremely arrogant and high strung. The only character I enjoy is Lucky Jack, the peglegged jackrabbit. He has some wild mood swings, but he is a generally pleasant and friendly personality. He eagerly assists the cows out of the goodness of his heart (With a side helping of personal revenge), and is the only character with a truly good spirit in the movie.

Best quality provided: I truly enjoy the songs in the movie. These are Alan Menken songs, and while they’re not Beauty and the Beast grade, they’re genuinely well-written and clever. “(You Ain’t) Home on the Range” is kind of fun. I don’t really care for K. D. Lang’s “Little Patch of Heaven”, as pleasant as it is. I enjoy “Yodel-Adle-Eedle-Idle-Oo” as a guilty pleasure. “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again” is okay. “Anytime you Need a Friend” is equal parts charming and grating, sounding like a Disney Channel theme. But my absolute favorite is “Wherever the Trail May Lead” by Tim McGraw. It’s the perfect vocals for a real Western ballad that has a nice rhythm and message to it. It really is the perfect song for a wedding or vow renewal ceremony.

What could have been improved: I think this movie makes people feel betrayed, and I get why. It was intended to be the last hand drawn feature from the studio that gave us Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Peter Pan, and The Lion King. And instead of giving that legacy a proper sendoff, we got a cheap-looking comedy starring Roseanne as a cow belching and riffing insults. I think if The Emperor’s New Groove was supposed to be in its place, fans might feel the same way, but there was sincere heart in that one. Here, everything feels superficial, like no one had much interest in making a quality Disney film. I can’t actually blame the artists and writers, because I know it isn’t true. But at the same time, it’s a movie about cows making jokes like “The phony express”, “Stallion of the Cim-moron”, and a couple of udder jokes.

Verdict: Home on the Range is not, in fact, the worst animated Disney movie. It just feels that way. It came at a truly terrible time in Disney history, and because it fancied itself an irreverent comedy rather than a lush, grandiose, Shakespearean saga, it became a scourge. As I also stated, the quality of the film itself left a lot to be desired, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find appeal in it. I give this four psychedelic hypnotized steers out of ten.

Wagons…East!

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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