Home on the Range (2004)
Directed by Will Finn and John Sanford
Maggie is a former show cow who is the only cow remaining at her ranch after it is raided by the cattle rustler Alameda Slim. Her owner sells her to a small farm named Patch of Heaven, where she meets two other cows: Grace and Mrs. Calloway. When she finds out that Patch of Heaven is about to be foreclosed unless its owner can come up with $750, Maggie convinces the other two to head into town to try to get the money themselves.
After causing a bit of chaos in town, the trio learns that Alameda Slim is not only still active in their area, but has a $750 bounty on him. Desiring revenge, Maggie decided that the best way to get the money is to capture the criminal. Also after Slim is Rico, a bounty hunter who borrows the local sheriff’s extremely over-eager horse, Buck. The cows go undercover with a cattle drive hoping that Slim will show up. He does, and they learn how he’s so good at rustling: he can hypnotize cows via yodeling. Grace, who’s immune by virtue of being tone deaf, saves the other two and they continue to follow the trail.
Following a flash flood that nearly causes them to abandon the mission, they meet a jackrabbit who can guide them the rest of the way. Meanwhile, Buck gets abandoned by Rico for being an idiot, and he resolves to catch Slim on his own. They all meet up at Slim’s hideout, where he’s planning to sell the cattle on the black market and use the funds to purchase Patch of Heaven. Rico, it turns out, is actually on his payroll, and has been using his bounty hunting skills to protect Slim. They beat up his gang and Rico, but Slim himself escapes. The cows use Slim’s abandoned train to get back to Patch of Heaven in time to stop the auction and capture Slim.
There is actually very little information on this movie’s production available online. I guess Disney really doesn’t want to talk about this one.
From what I can gather, it started life during the Renaissance as a story idea by Mike Gabriel (director of Pocahontas). Called Sweating Bullets, it was originally going to be about a timid, inexperienced cowboy who has to go against the ghost of a cattle rustler. It later got revised into a story about a bull actually named Bullets, and then went through even more script revisions.
By 1999, the project was in serious trouble. The story clearly wasn’t working, and Disney actually took the step of taking Gabriel off the project entirely. The story artists collectively got together to pitch a new plot about cow bounty hunters using the already completed character designs, and the producers talked Will Finn (an animator who had worked on the early Renaissance movies but had left the company to direct Dreamworks’s The Road to El Dorado) into coming back to take over the film.
I’m not quite sure what possessed them to pull out the Hollywood rolodex for the voice casting, but nearly every character in the movie is played by a major celebrity. Does it count as stunt casting if everyone’s famous? They even got Dame Judi Dench to play the cow Mrs. Calloway. They also doubled down on the music, hiring three different country performers to sing songs written by Alan Menken.
Unfortunately, even the A-list talent wasn’t enough to save the movie in the eyes of the studio. There had been so many delays that they actually had to switch release dates with Brother Bear, which had originally been on track to come out after Home on the Range but was by now further along in production. It eventually came out in April 2004, the first release outside of Disney’s usual mid-summer or holiday season windows since before the Renaissance started. It didn’t absolutely bomb with critics, but it did receive decidedly lukewarm reviews, with many critics calling it a competently-made time waster for kids but nothing more than that. Audiences seemed to think even less of the movie. It opened to only $15 million, fourth place for the weekend, and made back less than half its budget during its US run.
By then, the writing was on the wall. Even before the disappointing opening, Disney Animation execs had decided that Home on the Range was going to be the last of Disney’s traditional, hand-drawn movies. Finding Nemo’s release the previous year had destroyed all animated box office records, and those records would be broken again by Shrek 2 only a month after Home on the Range came out. Maybe they would have greenlit another traditionally animated movie if it had been a success, but Home on the Range’s failure sealed the medium’s fate. The studio had already started work on its first in-house computer animated film, and they would only release two more traditionally animated movies over the next 17 years.
It’s probably unfair to say that Home on the Range was so bad that it killed an entire artform. As alluded to above, the Disney bosses had already made the decision to move to computer animation even before the movie’s failure at the box office. But I wouldn’t really blame anyone who thought so. It really IS that bad.
The tone of the movie was set for me within the first 90 seconds or so. As our main character of Maggie (voiced by the ever-so-mellifluous Roseanne Barr) is explaining to the audience what happened to her old farm, the camera focuses on her udders and she says, I’m not kidding, “Yeah, they’re real. Stop staring.”
Was that a breast implant joke? Made by a cow? In a DISNEY film?
So yeah, we haven’t really introduced more than one character and this is already one of the crasser entries in the Disney canon. My guess is that one of two things happened. Either A) it was an ad-lib made by Barr while recording that made the animators laugh and they decided to throw it in, or B) the writers and executives looked at the mountain of cash that Shrek had made while dismantling Disney tropes, and decided that the toilet humor is what made that movie successful. And I really suspect that it’s B, because dear lord is there a lot of toilet humor in this movie. For example, judging by the lyrics of the movie’s villain song, Alameda Slim has two defining character traits: he can yodel enough to hypnotize cattle, and he has enormous underwear.
Sure, there had been plenty of anachronistic humor in Disney movies before. Just look at Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy’s turns in Aladdin and Mulan. But this was really the first time that it felt like Disney was desperately trying to be “hip” or “edgy” with its humor. The whole thing really did feel like a desperate attempt to recapture some of the audience that Dreamworks had wooed away. There’s even a scene where the three cows get sexually harassed by a herd of horny (hah hah hah…get it?) cattle that’s played for laughs. Sorry, Disney, but I’m not buying what you’re selling, and neither were audiences in 2004.
It doesn’t help matters that a lot of the character designs are ugly as sin. Another reviewer compared the design of the cows to a Picasso painting, and while that might be a bit extreme I can definitely see where they’re coming from. All of the characters are weird and angular, or else oddly misproportioned (despite all of the many cracks about his waistline, Alameda Slim actually had a massive upper body and teeny tiny legs). The production used Deep Canvas a lot for the backgrounds, but unlike in previous movies it stands out like a sore thumb, the pseudo-3D effects clashing wildly with the exaggerated 2D character designs.
The music is definitely better than it was in Brother Bear. The ballad “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again” was actually quite good (supposedly Menken wrote it in response to 9/11), and the pro singers that they hired (which included Bonnie Raitt and Tim McGraw) acquitted themselves well. But then there’s the villain song, “Yodel-Adle-Eedle-Idle-Oo.” First of all, it’s sung/yodeled by Alameda Slim’s voice actor, Randy Quaid, instead of one of the professionals. Second, it features Quaid attempting to yodel to the tunes of multiple works of classical music, while hypnotized cows dance around in flashing psychedelic colors. I get that it’s probably a tribute to the pink elephants sequence from Dumbo, but it’s just one more really bad decision piled onto all the rest.
It’s 2021, and Disney is still going strong. They might even be in the midst of a second Renaissance at the moment. But if you’d told me that the studio went out of business after 2004, and showed me this movie, I probably would have believed you if I hadn’t already known better. I can confidently say that this is the worst movie I’ve watched so far in the canon, and I’m not sure anything to come will be able to dislodge it. I’ve never actually seen Chicken Little before (one of only two remaining that I haven’t), but even though I’ve heard bad things I can’t see how it can top Home on the Range.
Animation: D+ (There have been design aesthetics that haven’t clicked with me before, but I don’t know that I’ve had such a strong negative reaction to the designs of any previous Disney movie)
Main Characters: C- (The voice actors do the best with what they’re given, but I don’t think even Laurence Olivier could have made these characters interesting)
Supporting Characters: D+ (The movie introduces a whole bunch of characters at the farm, and then promptly forgets about them for most of the run-time)
Villains: D (I think Steve Buscemi’s black market cattle buyer summed it up best when he said “I quit clown college for THIS?”)
Music: C+ (Most of it isn’t bad, but I had to dock the movie a grade for that yodeling song)