A Walt Disney Production: “Home on the Range”

Mary McKeon
17 min readJul 29, 2018

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It’s hardly news at this point that Disney is no longer prioritizing traditional 2D animation in features. Some blame the less-than-stellar box office performance of The Princess and the Frog (though it by no means flopped and was generally well-received), others point to John “Lingering Hugs” Lasseter for pushing the medium to the wayside and blaming the financial failure of 2011’s Winnie the Pooh on audiences simply no longer wanting to see a hand-drawn animated film, rather than the film’s release on the same weekend as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2. But between 2004 and the late 2009 release of Princess and the Frog, it seemed clear that the fault lay with the overall disappointment of 2004’s Home on the Range. With the Florida animation studio having closed only a few months before its release, and its hand-drawn animation equipment being sold off, it was clear that a transition to computer-animated features was already in progress, but if there was any hope for a resurgence in traditional animation alongside CG (and outside of television animation and direct-to-video sequels), it was squashed by the film’s lukewarm-at-best reviews and low box office returns.

Unlike the last few films I’ve reviewed for this series, I never saw this one in my childhood. I was vaguely aware of it, but I didn’t actually see it for myself until I was around fourteen and had developed my special interest in Disney. I’d already heard that about its failure, but decided to give it a chance and see for myself. Back then, I didn’t love what I saw, but I didn’t really get why people seemed to hate it so much. I wasn’t about to place it in the same caliber as Beauty and the Beast or even more recent films like Tangled, but I found it entertaining enough. As I prepared to rewatch it for this article, however, I was fully prepared for my feelings toward it to change. I was a bit more optimistic after Brother Bear exceeded my expectations last month, but I knew going in that this would be a low point in the series.

Background

Like Emperor’s New Groove, Home on the Range originated as nearly an entirely different film. It was first pitched to Michael Eisner as an adaptation of the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin; the character of Maggie was a young Deaf girl immune to the Piper’s control But although there are some variations of the story that have the hearing children simply taken away to a paradise where they can eat and play to their hearts’ content and never have to grow up (including a 1933 Disney short), it’s mostly known as a dark legend, with most versions having the children killed or otherwise never seen again. Eisner rejected it outright, telling writers Will Finn and John Sanford that families wouldn’t want to see a movie in which people’s children are murdered. I can see how that version of the film might have been better than the final product, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand Eisner’s concerns.

After some reworking, Finn and Sanford’s project was green-lit under the working title Sweating Bullets. Elements of the Pied Piper legend remained, with the main villain hypnotizing cattle through music, but the overall premise was changed to the story of a young man traveling to a ghost town in the Old West to face off with an undead cattle rustler named Slim. The main protagonist was eventually aged down to a kid, then changed to a young bull named Bullets who was tasked with saving his herd from Slim. Finally, it was changed — slightly more drastically — to three dairy cows named Maggie, Grace, and Mrs. Caloway. Early on in the production of this final premise, the character of Maggie went through some changes that they felt would add to the group dynamic and overall appeal of the film. The first major decision was to make her more brash and crude in personality, which led to the casting of the now-disgraced Roseanne Barr as her voice. The second was to make her an outsider to the other farm animals, having come from a background of state fair competitions rather than being accustomed to life as a dairy cow on a small farm. Possibly the change that worked the most to the film’s benefit was the writers’ reining in of villain Alameda Slim’s motivations, from him wanting to hypnotize an army of cattle to storm Washington, DC to force his way into the presidency to him simply wanting to exact revenge on farmhands by forcing them to sell their land so that he can swoop in and buy it at auction.

Despite Home on the Range not being a musical, prolific Disney composer Alan Menken (of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hunchback, and Hercules fame) was brought on to score the film, at the time still called Sweating Bullets. With lyricist Howard Ashman having died in 1991, Menken brought with him a new collaborator, Glenn Slater, in both Slater’s first project at Disney and his first joint project with Menken. They would later go on to score the Broadway adaptation of The Little Mermaid, the 2010 release Tangled, as well as the TV series “Galavant” and “Tangled: The Series.” The duo wrote seven full songs for the project, with only one being cut during the story process, a prelude sung by three mariachi insects who would have served as narrators throughout the film, but were soon found to be holding back its narrative flow. The songs that made it into the final cut were all inspired by older country and western music, though one, called “Anytime You Need a Friend,” was later arranged as a pop song for the end credits. The rest were performed either by characters in the film or by iconic country stars, including Bonnie Raitt and Tim McGraw. One of the most notable tracks is “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again,” which was written both as a “where do we go from here” song that had already been requested by the story team, a task Menken was not particularly invested in, and as a response to the September 11 attacks, which occurred during the film’s production, the melody being a product of Menken processing his emotions following the tragedy.

In addition to taking research trips to dude ranches and cattle drives across the western region, development artists used the studio’s animation research library to look over backgrounds from older western-themed shorts such as Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and Pecos Bill to give the film its colorful and more cartoonish visual style. For Home on the Range, along with every hand-drawn animated film produced by the studio since The Rescuers Down Under in 1990, the cels were inked and painted digitally and computer-generated backgrounds were integrated using the CAPS system. Home on the Range was the last feature to use the program, which was unnecessary for fully computer-animated films. The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh would use the more modern Toon Boom Harmony software to color the cels. But aside from some 2D animated effects used in various short films and for one minor character in Moana, hand-drawn animation is largely an obsolete medium at Disney Animation — and if the underperformance of Winnie the Pooh was the final nail in the coffin, Home on the Range was the lid.

Positives

As I said at the beginning, I never despised this movie as much as most critics and Disney fans do. It’s far from being objectively good, but it still has much more to be admired than, say, Dinosaur. The stylized environments and bright color palette make the film’s art direction stand out, even if this movie isn’t particularly well-regarded.

The voice cast is solid, led by Judi Dench, Jennifer Tilly, Randy Quaid, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. And, yes, awful as she is in real life, and glad as I am that she’s now losing roles, Roseanne Barr also delivers a pretty good performance as Maggie. She has some cute interactions with the other farm animals when she first meets them toward the beginning of the film, and it’s rare to see a female protagonist who acts loud and crass without having to change that about herself by the end. Provided that Maggie isn’t also racist, xenophobic, and a conspiracy theorist who targets teenage shooting survivors, it’s a nice change of pace.

The primary focus of the story is a friendship between three female leads, with varying personalities and no love interests, who set out to accomplish a goal that will bring about some justice for people who are suffering. There are also a handful of decently funny jokes, my favorite being one in which Grace (voice of Jennifer Tilly, who gives the funniest performance by a longshot) is singing so poorly that vultures begin to circle above her and Maggie has to tell them she’s not dying, to which one of them responds matter-of-factly, “You sure? We can come back later!” Grace and Mrs. Caloway’s farm gets a strong introduction, showing an idyllic and friendly setting before it gets disrupted by Maggie’s arrival. A particularly hard-hitting scene occurs in the third act that is the very definition of the “all is lost” moment described in screenwriting classes. This montage, showing the main characters feeling discouraged in their respective journeys to catch Alameda Slim, and the side characters back in their hometown worrying for their friends’ and (in the case of the sheriff and farmer) animals’ safety, is unexpectedly sobering and truly makes you empathize with their dilemmas. The entire sequence is underscored by “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again,” which is, in my opinion, one of Alan Menken’s best works with Glenn Slater, having come from a place of real mourning and doubt.

In the other more somber scenes, Alan Menken’s orchestral score is beautiful as always, and his songs with Slater’s lyrics are truly wonderful. The two songs included in the prologue, “(You Ain’t) Home on the Range” and “Little Patch of Heaven” are both fun and work perfectly to set up two important but highly contrasting elements of the film’s setting and preview what the three leads will be up against on the quest to save their home, as well as what they stand to lose should they fail. There are two songs in the end credits, the first being “Wherever the Trail May Lead,” a sincere ballad and ode to friendship and supportive bonds with others performed by Tim McGraw. “Anytime You Need a Friend,” which is basically about the same thing, has a pleasant melody and lyrics, and the version on the soundtrack performed by Menken himself is fittingly nice to listen to, though the version that actually appears in the film is a dated pop arrangement clearly made to appeal to the kids watching at the time. And it sort of worked. On me, at least: it was included on a CD I had as a child called “Disney Girlz Rock” and now I’m nostalgic for it.

Negatives

The comedic style of the film is set within the first three minutes. Unfortunately, this style is pretty awful. Through an opening narration included in lieu of decently written exposition within the annoyingly rushed introduction to the film, Maggie explains why she’s coming to live on the Patch of Heaven farm (even though we’re seeing it onscreen at the same time), throwing in a “spilled milk” joke and a reference to breast augmentation for some levity. Aside from a few jokes I mentioned before, the rest of them are equally bad, if not more so. Too many rely on potty humor and repeating punchlines, and if they’re not low-hanging fruit, they just plain don’t make sense. Jeb the Goat’s running gag about being possessive over his collection of cans isn’t funny, the chicken voiced by Estelle Harris provides humor that mostly consists of her yelling and not much else, the stupidity of Alameda Slim’s lackeys is — you guessed it — not at all entertaining, Lucky Jack’s slapstick doesn’t land at any point, and jokes like, “What is this, the frozen food section?” and, “I gave up clown college for this?” at the end make no sense for the plot or the Old West setting. Any jokes involving Slim are either about him being fat or involve him getting angry at his goons, who you’d think he might be more used to at this point. Like Chicken Little, other jokes rely on pop culture references: Buck saying, “Got milk?” to the cows at the end and Estelle Harris yelling a line from the 1989 Batman film during a fight are two of the worst ones.

Speaking of yelling, a few other jokes rely entirely on noise, and lots of it. Apparently the writers were under the impression that characters screaming over each other laid over loud and fast music and busy visuals equated to comedy. I’m running out of ways to say that the vast majority of the jokes in this film aren’t remotely funny, but what if I told you some of their cheapest gags are directly tied into some of its major plot points? Alameda Slim’s method of hypnotizing the cattle he steals is through an unexplained yodeling power that is revealed in a musical number (which is actually okay until it gets to the yodeling part, which takes up most of it) that attempts to substitute creative visuals with bright colors, and the next part of his scheme is to go buy the ruined farms at auction in a thoroughly unconvincing disguise and under the pseudonym “Y. Odel.” Sure, the farmers don’t know about his terrifying yodeling abilities, but the man has wanted posters all over the region, and no one recognizes him until his hat and glasses are removed in the climax of the film. Patch of Heaven was able to elude his wrath up until the events of the movie solely because one of his henchmen happened to consistently sit in the same exact spot on the couch at any time when Slim might have been looking at the map behind him, and his head just happened to be in a similar shape to the land, which is — you guessed it — not funny, and not a good way to set the conflict in motion.

But surprisingly, Slim’s hypnotism isn’t directly what puts Patch of Heaven in danger. Only minutes after Maggie’s arrival, Pearl receives a notice from the bank that her farm will be foreclosed on unless she comes up with $750 to pay them within three days. That plot device is all well and good, ticking clock and all that, but the methods through which the three cows solve the issue are further evidence of the laziest writing I think I’ve ever seen in an animated Disney film. They decide to go into the city to try and find a show to compete in, as Maggie once did. While there, they find that, even if they had a chance at some prize money, it still wouldn’t be nearly enough to save their farm. Luckily, though, they overhear the sheriff telling obvious surprise villain Rico that the bounty on Slim’s head just happens to be the exact amount they need, not a penny more or less.

From there, they hatch a plan to get to the nearest cattle drive and wouldn’t you know it, a wagon they find parked right in front of the sheriff’s office just happens to be en route to one, as they overhear from one of its oxen. Its driver just happens to not speak English, and so he thinks the cows being hitched to his wagon are gifts, and they’re on their way. When, by chance, they run into the painfully unfunny Lucky Jack, he just happens to have been driven out of his home by Slim and his men, and therefore happens to know exactly where they’re hiding out. In the third act, after Slim escapes their capture, Maggie and Grace are at a loss for how to catch up with him until Mrs. Caloway reminds them that the train he was going to use to transport the cattle just happens to pass right by Patch of Heaven, and if they were able to survive this adventure with no food or water (something that is absolutely never explained and wouldn’t have even crossed my mind had they not outright said it), surely they could finish what they set out to do. She’s not going to tell them or us how she knows that, but it turns out to be true, and their commandeering of the train allows them to reach him and strip away his already terrible disguise, after which he’s finally arrested. Sure, the cows do some work here and there along their journey, coming up with ideas, walking, and…well, that’s really all they accomplish through their own work. All of the most important details that decide their success or failure result in success primarily through convenience, rather than by combining their individual strengths or exploiting the villains’ weaknesses. From a writing standpoint, it’s just plain cheating.

If the laziness of the plot wasn’t enough, it’s also poorly paced. Scenes pass quickly from one to the next with no real segue between them, and they often don’t allow for action or information to set in before moving along. We go right from Maggie being introduced to the farm animals to the farm being foreclosed on, then from there to the cows heading into town. Her arrival is underscored by an electric guitar riff, which is totally out of place with the rest of the score, even if it is fitting for her personality. Alameda Slim’s song is immediately followed by a loud, dramatic music sting with no transition between the two. The most important scenes aren’t spaced out enough to actually feel important, and you’re unable to really get invested in the plot.

Speaking of things you can’t get invested in, we learn next to nothing about the characters throughout the film. We know Maggie is sad about having been forced out of her home, but we don’t know anything about her life there. Was she good friends with the other cattle? Did her owner regard her as family like Pearl does for her animals? Was competing her only source of self-confidence? We have no clue. They try to compensate for this by having her narrate her emotions in the first few minutes, but all that ends up doing is verbalizing what we’re already watching. The closest we get to a real emotional moment with her (aside from the “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again” montage) is a scene where the three cows pass by her old ranch as it’s being auctioned off, and she reveals to them that the stall full of prize ribbons was hers, and this could very well have replaced her opening narration, letting the audience learn more about her at the same time the other characters do. We don’t know anything about Pearl and the farm animals, so we can’t really feel for her when she’s at risk of losing her land and livestock. Maybe if they’d thrown in something about her not having any living human family, or something about the farm being passed down from a family member, we could sympathize more, but outside of the Menken montage that includes her sadly looking at old pictures of her cows in her poorly-integrated CG farmhouse, we know too little about her life and her as a person.

Mrs. Caloway hates any animal that’s not from a farm like hers, and it’s never explained why. She has one line about show cows not having to work for their keep, but that’s a flimsy excuse for a character motivation. From their first meeting, she and Maggie are excessively mean to each other despite having not done much to upset each other, until the studio-mandated happy ending where all of the protagonists are friends, even though all they’ve done is insult each other with no moments of bonding or gaining better understanding of one another. At one point, Caloway blames her for the farm’s foreclosure, despite this having occurred roughly two minutes after she first got there. What we see of Mrs. Caloway and Grace interacting with their fellow farm animals is too brief to understand their relationships. A group of chicks are the ones to finally convince Mrs. Caloway to join Maggie and Grace to try to save the farm, and they act as if we’re supposed to know about their influence over her (this is followed by an obligatory “it’s a chick thing” joke,” naturally). Making Maggie an outsider within the group didn’t do anything to enhance their dynamic; they could have achieved the same effect having the conflict simply come from their clashing personalities. The only time they’re justified in their contempt for another side character is a scene in which they’re all approached by bulls who aggressively flirt with them, and apparently grope Mrs. Caloway. And as fun as it is to see a harasser get knocked to the ground, it’s plain uncomfortable to see leads in a Disney movie getting catcalled and sexually harassed, especially seeing as this doesn’t fit in to anything else in the plot.

The constant head-butting between Maggie and Mrs. Caloway is bad enough, but Buck the horse gets the same treatment from all but one or two of the other characters. He’s somewhat cocky, sure, but there’s no decent reason for the cows to be as hostile toward him as they are. They inexplicably blame him for Patch of Heaven’s foreclosure, and constantly insult him whenever they cross paths. He jabs back at them sometimes, but in the end, he’s more of a sympathetic character than any of them. His motivation is to become a hero, and when his role model Rico is exposed as a villain, it takes him a strangely long time to go against him and help save the farm. We don’t know why Rico wants to work with the other villains when he already profits enough from bounty hunting, nor do we know any of the other villains’ motives. Early on, Slim says that his plan isn’t to get rich, but to exact revenge against the farmers whose land he’s taking. Revenge for what, I have no idea. It must have gotten lost in another rushed and busy scene where nothing gets to sink in. Steve Buscemi’s cameo as the clown college drop-out could have been cut out altogether, since he adds nothing and is only introduced in the last ten or so minutes of the film, being disposed of after one or two scenes.

Predictably, the resolution has all of the protagonists being on much better terms with each other, even if there was no development leading to this. Mrs. Caloway and Maggie are suddenly friends, and all three of them are suddenly friends with Buck as well. They even tolerate the bulls for some reason, and dance with them in the ending reprise of “Little Patch of Heaven,” after the dairy cows have all won first place ribbons in the very same activity that Caloway spent the whole movie hating without learning anything about its possible positive aspects.

Final Thoughts

Home on the Range is unique for sure, and it had some potential to be a decent buddy road-trip comedy, and a rare one with female leads at that. There are some fun moments, but it’s not enough to make up for the film’s lazy writing and unlikable characters. I understand that all stories need conflict, and buddy comedies have to have some conflict between their leads, but the protagonists are too mean-spirited to make the audience care about their struggles or their relationships to each other. The humor is stale and dated, and too much of the plot relies on coincidence to get its heroes from point A to point B. I think the message is supposed to be about teamwork and learning to respect others who are different from you, but the only thing that unites the main characters is a common goal that doesn’t organically bring them closer together. Mrs. Caloway doesn’t learn about Maggie’s old life as a show cow and how that life isn’t necessarily as vapid as she believes, and Maggie doesn’t learn anything about why Caloway is so uptight. They just spend the movie mocking each other for those things until they stop out of necessity for a happy ending. The music and visuals can be nice, but the writing is disconnected and the characters are bland. I’ve definitely seen worse movies, but few have been this aggravating to watch. It’s strange to me that its failure was pinned on its medium, an art form that’s largely been lost in mainstream film, when there’s so much else to blame for it.

Originally published at miseensense.wordpress.com on July 29, 2018.

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Mary McKeon

Film/TV critic, essayist, and screenwriter. Hollins University class of 2020 current MFA student.