Home on the Range
Disney's animated Home on the Range--about three cows who turn to bounty hunting in order to save their farm--further illustrates how unimaginative Disney animation has become with yet another tired, albeit kid-pleasing, formula.
Set in a whimsical version of the untamed West, Range zeroes in on a quaint dairy farm called Patch of Heaven run by the kindly Pearl (voiced by Carole Cook). Life on the prairie farm is near perfect for its resident dairy cows--including the organized leader Mrs. Calloway (voiced by Judi Dench), the touchy-feely Grace (voiced by Jennifer Tilly) and the newcomer, sassy show cow Maggie (voiced by Roseanne Barr)--as well as for the rest of Patch of Heaven's colorful denizens. Their idyllic existence is threatened when the farm is unexpectedly put up for auction to pay back taxes, so the determined cows scheme to nab notorious castle rustler Alameda Slim (voiced by Randy Quaid) and turn him in for reward money, which will pay off the taxes and save the farm. They set out on a high-spirited adventure across the rugged western landscape to catch Slim in the act. At the same time, they also have to try to outsmart a hero-worshipping stallion named Buck (voiced by Cuba Gooding Jr.), who wants to catch Slim himself to get all the glory. Can Maggie, Grace and Mrs. Calloway hogtie the dastardly villain, hand him over to the authorities and collect the reward money in time to save their precious Patch of Heaven? Of course they can, dagnabbit--they're cows, aren't they?
However mundane Home on the Range is, at least Disney has great casting sense. The three lead actresses seem to truly enjoy finding the bovine within. Roseanne, who's been out of the spotlight for a while, delivers Maggie's zingers with zest (referring to her udders, Maggie quips, ''Yeah, they're real. Quit staring'') and as Maggie's cohort, Tilly's naturally high, squeaky voice lends credibility to Grace's new age-isms and non-confrontational ways. The real surprise comes from the Oscar-winning Dench, who gives Mrs. Calloway that certain highbrow British sensibility while also allowing her to butt heads with Maggie every once in awhile. (One wonders, though, how a British cow made it to the Wild West?) In supporting roles, Gooding hams it up as Buck, a horse trying to prove he is a true hero with rather skewed methods, while Quaid bullies, torments and, yes, even yodels as Alameda Slim--yodeling being the bad guy's technique for hypnotizing and luring the cattle into his evil clutches. Standout vocal cameo goes to Steve Buscemi as a cold-hearted, fast-talking city slicker (the bug-eyed character even looks a little like him).
Under Will Finn and John Sanford's direction, Home on the Range has a heartening message of hearth and home, decent performances, and nothing blatantly wrong with the story structure, which hits the right marks despite being a tad too cutesy. Then why is the film so lackluster? Maybe because just like last year's Brother Bear, Range seems factory-made. The animation is certainly sub-par, with flat colors and 2-D, rudimentary drawings more suitable for a Disney theme-park ride. Last year's Teacher's Pet, as well as most Japanime these days, proves hand-drawn animation can--and better--go out on a limb if its to compete with the marvels of CGI, but Disney seems stuck in a rut (and splitting with Pixar won't help matters). Luckily, some catchy Western tunes help Range git along, composed by Oscar winner Alan Menken, who makes his first triumphant return to Disney since his '90s heyday that included composing music for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. It also doesn't hurt that six original songs are performed by country greats including k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt and Tim McGraw.
All in all, Home on the Range's animated cow shenanigans should easily lasso the kiddies, but more than a few discouraging words could be said about its dull animation. The once-great Mouse House needs to keep up with the Joneses.