For a while, this was it.
A few years earlier, after a series of frustratingly big financial disappointments, the executives over at Disney had come to the conclusion that hand-drawn animation was simply a thing of the past. If they couldn’t make any money out of these features, no matter how hard they tried, then there simply was no market for this product. We were right at the tick of Pixar’s popularity, sandwiched between Finding Nemo (their biggest hit so far) and the upcoming release of The Incredibles (their best film, in my opinion), when Disney released what was going to be their very last traditionally animated feature-length film.
The biggest problem Home on the Range faced at the time of its release was having to live up to the reputation of being the official swan-song of Disney Animation Studios as we knew them. And if you were alive in 2004, then you’ll know how big of a cultural impact the movie had, which is to say practically none whatsoever. People didn’t want to watch a comedy about a group of sassy cows trying to save their farm (which is ironic considering how people would watch movies starring all kinds of sassy animals as long as they were computer animated), and people who knew the backstory behind the film certainly weren’t convinced the movie was going to be a worthy last act for the studio that had made such beloved classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, The Little Mermaid... I would continue, but I think you are probably familiar with the list.
The truth is that, no, Home on the Range is nowhere near the genius of Disney’s biggest classics. It is not reinventing any kind of wheel like Snow White. Neither is it reviving the studio’s classic style by adopting more modern sensibilities like The Little Mermaid. Actually, it isn’t even trying to fit the mold of Disney’s classic musicals. From the comments I made above, the movie might seem like a typical animated movie from the early 21st century: mainly comedic, starring talking animals. But while it is certainly closer to that kind of movie than to any of Disney’s Princesses, it also is a product of certain directions the studio was taking. The crazy, funny, cartoony movie with a heart is something Disney had been approaching since Aladdin, and had by the way of Hercules perfected it, culminating in the funniest of their movies: The Emperor’s New Groove.
And even if it is undoubtedly the lesser of those movies, Home on the Range still has much more to offer than a lot of animated movies. Just looking at the year it was released, there is more to admire in it than in the punishingly boring The Polar Express or the ridiculously Academy Award nominated Shark Tale. For starters, Home on the Range wears its heart on its sleeve in a hugely effective way. It knows it is a small, simple story, and as such, it doesn’t try to milk more drama than it should. It earns its few sentimental moments by keeping it small and not too emotional. Most of its interest is in being funny, and as you may know, I prefer when funny comes out of a focused premise the filmmakers are comfortable with, instead of it just being an excuse to make a movie.
That is to say the foundations of Home on the Range are in the right place, which gives it a head start as an effective movie. Now, being serviceable is not the same as being very good, and this movie is, sadly, not that. Its biggest problem is that for as much as it focused on comedy, it is really not that funny. There are certainly a bunch of funny moments, but there is a weird mix where the movie’s tone is mostly on kid level, showing jokes that would make little kids laugh, yet it also has a few weirdly sexual jokes that feel especially out of place in a movie that seemed to be so sincere in its family friendly comedy.
However, Home on the Range works. And not only that, but I have a lot to appreciate in the way it was made. If this brand of Disney movies was trying to be more like Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes, then Home on the Range is the clearer example of that. The stark lines, and two-dimensional design of its characters is nothing but completely inspired by the style of Chuck Jones. Not to mention the fantastically colorful work done in the backgrounds. It is cartoony, and idiosyncratic, and I like it a lot. It might not be entirely successful, but there is something to be said when you have the talent and resources of Disney Animation Studios trying to make something in the style of the classic 50s and 60s Looney Tunes cartoons. If not, then whenever else would we have seen something as crazy and ridiculous as the musical sequence below in a Disney film?
Next Week: The absolute nadir of Disney Animation, an atrocity by the name of Chicken Little.