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"Home on the Range": Where Seldom is Heard an Amusing Word

Imagine that the year is 1988. The now trademark Disney formula of groundbreaking animation, catchy score, tale about finding oneself, cute sidekicks, and wealth of clever jokes has yet to be established. The Little Mermaid has yet to be made. Contemporary Disney films include The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company. This is the world of Disney’s latest film, Home on the Range, a return to the days when Disney’s films were simpler, blander, and clearly just for small kids.

Ever since 1999′s Tarzan, Disney has been tinkering with their formula, first with slapstick comedy in Emperor’s New Groove and then with action adventure in Atlantis and Treasure Planet. Home on the Range turns out to be their least successful experiment yet. Apparently sore from unsuccessful efforts to expand the core audience to older teens, they decided this time to shrink it down to kindergarteners. The movie is so dull and generic that it’s very unlikely anyone much older than that will get much enjoyment out of it. I don’t know which Disney executive thought this was a good way to go, but CEO Michael Eisner was probably wise to announce his upcoming resignation before a shareholder lynch mob started forming.

The setup is typical Disney – the brash showcow, Maggie (Roseanne Barr), arrives at the small farm Patch of Heaven, run by the kindly old lady Pearl. She is initially shunned for her crude and rebellious demeanor by the farm’s bovine matriarch, Mrs. Calloway (Dame Judi Dench), and to a lesser extent her dimwitted companion Grace (Jennifer Tilly). As it turns out, the bank is about to foreclose on the farm unless $750 is paid in a few days. Maggie spots a wanted poster offering a $750 reward for the capture of notorious cattle rustler Alameda Slim (Randy Quaid) and, in a surprisingly innovative turn, she proposes that the cows themselves go find Slim and bring him in for the reward. After some debate they set out to do so, slowly bonding along the way as they overcome various mild perils. The fresh premise of law enforcing livestock seems to promise some great humor, but the actual execution is mundane and joyless.

Some responsibility must be borne by the cast, although of course they can only be as good as the lines written for them. The casting of Barr as the lead seems to further the evidence of substance abuse among the Disney elite. Roseanne crotch-grabbing Barr?! Not only is such a crude personality at odds with the film’s general wholesomeness, but she has a horribly grating voice, has never been all that funny, and certainly doesn’t have exemplary acting skills. Dench does bring impressive acting credentials, but she’s clearly slumming it here in a role so generically British that anyone with a UK passport and a heartbeat could have played it. The other characters are relatively minor. Quaid puts an interesting spin on his voice, but isn’t given anything funny to say. Cuba Gooding Jr., as the crime fighting horse Buck, seems to be channeling Eddie Murphy’s Donkey from Shrek, and it’s even less amusing the second time around. The only truly interesting character is Wesley, played by the always reliable Steve Buscemi in his usual Tarantino mode. Unfortunately he gets little more than a cameo.

The animation harkens back to an earlier era, with a retro Looney Tunes feel. This may merely be the result of Disney’s efforts to cut costs, but it’s a nice change of pace all the same. Even though there’s nothing to impress those who have seen the likes of Treasure Planet and Tarzan, the goofy cartoonish designs do their best to imbue the film with a sense of fun. Special notice must be given to the design of Wesley, who is a dead ringer for Buscemi himself. Thankfully Barr’s depiction is a bit more abstract.

Hand in hand with the animation, the music is a very modest affair. The opening number “(You Ain’t) Home on the Range” is admittedly fun, with a few lyrics bordering on the subversive for Disney. The spotlight song “Little Patch of Heaven” however, is flavorless and forgettable, along with most of the score.

All other complaints aside, the film simply fails to entertain, unless you’re young enough that the mere concept of karate chopping cows seems hilarious. The characters are extremely tired clichés, and the story and action pale in their abject simplicity to the last decade of Disney films. More to the point, the movie’s many attempts at humor fall udderly flat (pause for laughter). This unbearably trite collection of “jokes” is far more successful at eliciting groans than anything resembling a snicker.

The struggles of Home on the Range‘s bovines with wily outlaws and flatulence may keep five year olds occupied, but teens and adults will be hard put to sit through the meager 70 minute running time. Maybe Disney has decided to concede the masses to Shrek and Nemo, but even the faithful won’t follow the herd for long if the road’s strewn with this sort of fertilizer.

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