With this underwhelming, slightly strange critter Western, the death knell for traditional animation at the House of Mouse pealed across the land. While the studio resurrected the medium for two more films, they were but the final, beautiful throes of a whole department about to enter a state of rigor mortis. This was the film where they decided to leave 2D behind for good – Princess and Winnie the Pooh were afterthoughts. If Home on the Range is where it came to die, Chicken Little is the ugly xenomorph that burst from it in death. Maybe if this half hearted Western had been a little bit better then hand drawn films would have stood a chance. As it is, this article is more an announcement of a death than a review. The Princess and the Frog will be my eulogy.
If this all sounds a little macabre and morose it’s because I got confused and accidentally watched this and Chicken Little out of order and the latter film has the honour of being one of the worst films in the canon. As I saw it, I wondered why Disney were so determined to leave one medium behind to replace it with something that was, at the time, underdeveloped and just plain ugly. It made me want to root for Home on the Range so it could be celebrated as the triumphant last hurrah of cels before the march of coded progress trampled it beneath its glossy, soulless feet. Alas, it was not to be. Instead of going out in a blaze of glory, 2D died with a wheeze of half remembered beauty.
Attempting a Western for the first time since the package films of the Forgotten Forties, Home on the Range tells the forgettable story of three cows who want to save their beautiful dairy farm from a villainous land-grabbing cattle rustler. Japes ensue. Taking more of a road-movie adventure approach in the style of The Rescuers Down Under or (sort of) Dinosaur, the structure is undermined by the fact that every new place they encounter looks exactly the same as the last. Films about journeys, especially animated ones, work well when it opens up the creative team to explore different locales. As it is, Home on the Range is merely a tramp through various different versions of one boring desert.
Perhaps the strangest choice made in the film is the voice cast, which features Judi Dench (as a cow in the deserts of the US?), Roseanne Barr and Cuba Gooding Jr. Each one of them voices their character like they are in different films to everyone else, an uncertainty which is carried over into the haywire tone of the film. At times it’s a slapstick comedy, at others a heartwarming ‘Save the Farm’ drama. At one point it features an utterly bizarre technicolour trip of a musical interlude that once more feels as though it has wandered in from another film (or even studio). None of these elements are particularly bad but they don’t gel as a whole, resulting in a film that feels uncertain of itself and never hitting the heights it is aiming for.
This last gasp of traditional animation from Disney suffers from the studio’s determination in the ’00s to try something different and leave behind old stories with princesses and magic. When it works, it works well, as with Lilo and Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove. However when they pushed this desire for difference too far, Disney forgot what made them great in the first place: beautiful animation; enchanting story telling; a big, beating heart beneath it all. Home on the Range is torn between the draw of modernity and a dying medium and the result is something that, while diverting and occasionally funny, fails to register on most levels. It is representative of a studio having an identity crisis and it came at the cost of hand drawn animation, which is a lamentable shame.