02 December 2012

Disney Daze: Week 45: Home on the Range

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Home on the Range may be the most curious production ever released by Walt Disney Feature Animation. The perplexities are myriad but they truly boil down to two niggling inquiries: how and why was this film made? It is easy to see how the high concepts of films like Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire secured their respective productions the coveted greenlight, but how were the studio brass of the early 2000s adequately convinced of the box office prospects of a musical Western starring a cow voiced by Roseanne Barr? The final film is an anachronistic jumble of down-home, simple pleasures and brash, in-your-face hijinks. It is decidedly the product of a studio that had, for all intents and purposes, lost its way. Admittedly, this confusion occasionally resulted in some great left-field work, notably Lilo & Stitch, but that charming film was easily the diamond in the rough. 

The screenplay to Home on the Range unfolds like it was hastily scribbled out over the weekend. It is as if the filmmakers came up with a title and then wrote down the first ideas that popped into their heads, never bothering to refine or question their work. The film stars three cows, voiced by Judi Dench, Jennifer Tilly, and the aforementioned Roseanne. One of the cows is a stuck-up society woman, another a beatific airhead, and the last a brash, loudmouth. Try and guess who is who. The cows are faced with eviction from their peaceful little farm by a villainous cattle thief whose reward bounty happens to be the exact price needed to save their property. The cows decide to track the thief down themselves and they set off across the vast, unknown prairie. The script contains two modes of humor, the first being the inappropriate release of bodily functions, with Roseanne's heifer Maggie starting up an impromptu belching contest with three little piggies. She also works blue, telling some ogling farm animals that her mammoth udders are in fact, real. The second brand of humor is the dreaded pun, with the characters checking off every lazy bon mot that could be haphazardly stretched to the farm setting. These include such choice turns of phrase as, "phony express", "wake up and smell the alfalfa", and "what does she specialize in, sour cream?" the latter referring to Dame Judi Dench's haughty behavior.

To its credit, Home on the Range does possess a handful of positive attributes. First and foremost is the animation style, which is chock full of exaggerated line work, very different than any design usually associated with Disney. The style also feels like a throwback, looking more like it was made for a fast-and-loose short from the forties or fifties, not the sleek designs of the new millennium. The character designs never reach the level of the truly iconic, like the inspired design of say, Cruella de Vil, but they are often quite fun to look at. The best might be the weasly Wesley, who is drawn like a diminutive hybrid of Gomez Addams and the character's voice actor, Steve Buscemi. 

There a quite a few bits of eye-popping animation interspersed throughout the film as well, including a brief transition from a flat frame to the widescreen format, a juxtaposition that works a hundred times better than the same effect when it appeared in the previous Brother Bear. Here it is kinetically added to an action-packed daydream created by the energetic sheriff's horse, Buck, who envisions himself singlehandedly fighting off a posse of bandits. Later, the filmmakers pull off a thrilling action climax that combines some truly energizing point-of-view shots on a roller coaster mine train ride and a sparkling, high-powered explosion courtesy of some brake sparks and a whole lot of TNT.  

Despite the animation's strengths, the best work in the film is reserved for the paint department, who frequently find the brightest, boldest colors to populate the prairie, with pink sunsets and blue-capped rock formations. Their tour-de-force however is saved for a vibrant, psychedlic musical number, reminiscent once again of the unparalleled "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence in Dumbo. In the film's strangest plot point, it turns out that the cattle thief, Alameda Slim, manages to nab all of his bovine by hypnotzing them with his yodeling prowess. This leads to a herd of neon-colored cows marching through a swirling void of nothingness and into Slim's clutches. 

The soundtrack is the best to come from either Disney or Alan Menken in a good long while. Working with the cowboy setting, Menken churns out a batch of Western songs, the best being the title track, which plays twice in the feature and is reminscent of the popular balladeers, The Sons of the Pioneers, who along with their lead singer, Roy Rogers, appeared way back in 1948's Melody Time. Home on the Range's tunes are sung by a cavalcade of capable contemporary country crooners, including k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, and Tim McGraw. Even the ballad this time around, "Will the Sun Ever Shine Again" passes by with a modicum of decency. Of course, the plot mechanics unspooling underneath the song's melodies are the most bland, forced attempts at sentimentality one could muster, which completely undermines the attempted effect.   

Home on the Range was a failure in every sense of the word. It was a modest film burdened with much too large a budget, one it could never hope to recoup from ticket sales. In fact, the film made less than half of its production cost back in American cinemas. Pixar Animation Studios' release from the same year, Brad Bird's The Incredibles, made fifty percent more than Home on the Range's entire box office haul in its opening weekend alone. Disney announced before the film's release that Home on the Range would be the last traditional, hand-drawn animated feature the studio would produce. Henceforth, the company would focus on computer-generated cartoons exclusively, as if the outdatedness of Home on the Range was the fault of its look. Happily, there was a regime change brewing at the studio and before the end of the following year the people responsible for turning their back on the work that was the studio's foundation would be gone. That would not stop the march of progress or save the company from making inferior products, but it was a vote of confidence for an artform that still had a lot of life to give. If only they would give it a chance.

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