Home on the Range Review
With the release of their 44th movie, an era as come to a crose for Walt Disney Feature Animation. Home on the Range is the studio's final traditionally animated project, with all future efforts being computer-generated, and 2D animation being reserved for low-budget, quickly-produced products animated in the Third World and created by a crew that has cut its teeth on dreck like Cinderalla 2: Dreams Come True and The Jungle Book 2: Welcome to the Jungle. With a history fraught with problems, including numerous missed deadlines and its original directors replaced, Home on the Range has been a long time in coming, but does the final result justify the extended wait, and is it a fitting end to the saga that all started in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?
The notorious rustler, Alameda Slim, and his cohorts, the Willie Brothers, are rampaging throughout the West stealing cattle and forcing farmers throughout the area to sell off their land. When a large, headstrong cow called Maggie is the only cow left on her farm, the farmer is unable to keep her and has to sell her off. Maggie ends up at neighbouring farm Patch Of Heaven, which has fallen behind on its tax payments. With the farm faced with iminent closure, Maggie manages to persuade fellow cows Grace and Mrs. Calloway that the best plan of action is for them to apprehend Alameda Slim, claim the reward money for themselves and use it to pay off the farm's taxes.
Home on the Range is very much a "quest" picture, with the heroes going off on a journey, and the problem with films such as these is that they run the risk of becoming episodic in nature, with the protagonists simply progressing from one set-piece problem to another with no real structure. This is very much the case here, and although the movie is only 76 minutes long (6 minutes of which is comprised of the end credits), it feels much longer. That said, it at least remains interesting thanks to its interesting visuals. Home on the Range represents very much a return to the minimalist look of the 1960s and 70s, with flat, angular character designs and backgrounds. CG is used sparingly but unfortunately it feels pretty intrusive when it does crop up: generally it is used to add more depth to the backgrounds, but has the side effect of making them look like a pop-up book.
The biggest problem with the film, however, is its humour, which is a great shame, since it is very much presented as a madcap comedy. The jokes can very much be described as Shrek-wannabe material, with copious anachronisms and pop-culture references. Film spoofs abound, including references to Risky Business and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (complete with Ennio Morricone's music), and while previous Disney films have included call-backs to other movies, when they are presented as gratuitously as they are here, the audience is really taken out of the film. In Aladdin, for example, the numerous celebrity impersonations worked because they were firmly established as part of the Genie's character, but here they feel out of place because the Western setting doesn't exactly facilitate pop culture, and nor does the nature of the storyline. The three protagonist cows are also saddled (geddit?) with extremely invasive voices provided by Roseanne Barr, Judi Dench and Jennifer Tilly which, despite clearly establishing their personalities, are too well-known to let the characters speak for themselves. Indeed, the personality of the Roseanne cow, Maggie, is transplanted whole-sale from her vile TV sitcom and is every bit as infuriating as celebrity guest stars on The Simpsons playing themselves.
That said, the film is salvaged by a combination of its interesting visual style and the sheer audaciousness of its visual comedy. Especially late in the film, slapstick runs rampant, with the standout being a superbly timed and animated chase through an abandoned mine. It is at moments like these that the film is able to truly revel in what it is - a hand-drawn cartoon (and the "cartoon" label is a lot more valid here than it has been in any of Disney's other recent offerings). The mainly consistent look of the movie is also a boon given that many of Disney's recent offerings (barring Lilo & Stitch) have featured extremely varying character design styles, with the best animation coming from Dale Baer's work on Alameda Slim and Shawn Keller's peg-legged rabbit character, Lucky Jack. Keller's work, in particular, has been the most consistently cartoony of all the Disney animators, incorporating distinctive swinging jaws and strong poses into every character he has led the animation on, as well as madcap movements that are reminiscent of Tex Avery's best work. The fact that talented animators like him are unlikely to get a chance to demonstrate their talents outside of personal projects (like Keller's Furry Fans parody site) is a disgrace.
Home on the Range's DVD release is, unsurprisingly, a single-disc affair rather than a lavish 2-disc special edition, but Disney have still managed to pack in a reasonable amount of worthwhile content.
Presented anamorphically in the CAPS native aspect ratio of 1.66:1, the transfer is significantly better than the majority of Disney's recent efforts. Edge enhancement is practically non-existent, and the image as a whole is incredibly sharp throughout. Compression artefacts are also in short supply, limited to some mild mosquito noise in a handful of scenes. There is some unsmooth banding on gradients, as seems to be the case on virtually all digitally-transferred animated films, but overall this is one of Disney's better transfers.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is solid without being outstanding. Dialogue is always clear, and there is some nice channel separation for the various speakers. The rears are mainly used to augment the score. A French Dolby Digital 5.1 dub is also included, as well as optional English and French subtitles for the film. Unfortunately, Disney continues their trend of refusing to cater for the deaf and hard of hearing by omitting subtitles for the bonus materials.
Unsurprisingly, the usual Disney trailers (skippable) run when you play the disc. The menu opens with a randomized sequence featuring characters from the film, animated in an interesting cut-out style. A "Skip" button is thankfully available at all times because these segments run for too long and become annoying very quickly.
Deleted scenes - Four deleted scenes are included, with an overview by directors Will Finn and John Sanford. The two directors also introduce each individual scene. All four are presented in storyboard form, with some occasional inserts of rough animation.
Music video - The title of "Music & More" gives the impression that there is more to it than this, but in fact all that is included is a rather silly-looking music video for the song "Anytime You Need a Friend", performed by a quartet of girls called the Beu Sisters. Their embarassing music video is interspersed with clips from the film which look completely out of place when presented alongside pop music.
Games and activities - Two kids' games are included here. The first, The Joke Corral, gives you the option to hear a joke, listen to an entire library of jokes, or, bizarrely, tell your own joke, in which you are given an opportunity to tell the television screen a joke, then press a button, and you will get a random reaction from one of the film's characters. Ummm... okay. This game, by the way, is presented with the same cardboard cut-out style animation as the menu screens. The second game, Yodel Mania!, includes a memory quiz, a brief introduction to the magic of yodelling, and perhaps most excitingly of all, a Yodel Maker, which directs you to the DVD-ROM section of the disc.
Commentary - Although not mentioned in the packaging or press release materials at all, there is indeed a commentary, featuring producer Alice Dewey Goldstone and writers/directors Will Finn and John Sandford. It is very much a standard Disney-style commentary, with lots of name-checking and ample praise for everyone involved, as well as some anecdotes about the production process and ideas that got left out.
"Trailblazers" - The making of Home on the Range - This 17-minute documentary is really more of a featurette, since it doesn't go into much detail at all, but its inclusion is still welcome, if only to hear some more comments from the creative crew and to see some brief behind the scenes footage.
Art review - Art director David Cutler and background supervisor Cristy Maltese provide a 10-minute commentary for a number of pieces of artwork, including background designs, character models, colour tests and photographs of the locations that inspired the film's look.
Bonus short - Running at 3 minutes and 40 seconds, this short, entitled "A Dairy Tale: The Three Little Pigs", utilizes the same cut-out animation style that the menus and Joke Corral game featured. It's quite imaginative, and features the voices of the characters from the film itself, but ultimately it has nothing on the various shorts that have been included in, for example, Pixar's DVDs.
Ultimately, with Home on the Range, the good, the bad and the ugly are on full display, and while the film is relatively entertaining on a superficial level, it's a shame that Disney Feature Animation's final 2D project wasn't a more significant piece of work. The limp story and poor box office takings have certainly done nothing to persuade Disney executives that their decision to murder 2D feature animation was a mistake, and the end result is one that you will probably find reasonably enjoyable when it lasts, then forget about it. Let's just hope that the legacy of Walt Disney as a whole, which ends with this film, will not suffer a similar fate.
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