So this was it. By all accounts it looked like Disney was going to abandon traditional animation all together, and "Home on the Range" was to be the last one out the gate. With films from Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky raking in so much bank, what other reason could it be other than audiences choosing 3D over 2D? (a theory I'm sadly considering may have some merit). As was expected, "Range" underperformed, but it's been said that the film was set up to fail, if only to make the gross of their first CG film the following year seem that much more impressive. An off-season (April) release date and limited marketing support this theory pretty well. The film was also stalled with story problems, resulting in it switching with "Brother Bear," but perhaps they pushed the production schedule along on PURPOSE. It's all a big conspiracy!
Out in the old west is a nice little farm named Patch of Heaven, who is about to have a new addition: a brazen and snarky show-cow named Maggie. This doesn't sit too well with the prim and proper Mrs. Calloway, but the eternally naive Grace doesn't seem to mind. The owner of the farm is in dire financial straights, as most of the area's farms are, due to a stealthy cattle rustler Alameda Slim. With only three days to pay off the farm's debt, the trio of cows set out into town to see if they can negotiate with the sheriff's horse, a cocky would-be fighter Buck. There they find the ransom for Slim's capture just so happens to be the exact amount of money they need, leaving the cows with only one option: kill... I mean, bring Alameda Slim to justice.
The film's tone and relatively simplistic and gimmicky story makes this one of Disney's lighter movies, hardly the bang one would hope traditional animation could go out on. However, I do like the look of this movie: nice, warm and natural color scheme, but still with fantastical elements, like the color-coding of the cows. The character designs are also very neat, more constructed with sharp edges and angular forms than the more realistic looking characters we usually get from Disney. It almost seems lifted from Tex Avery cartoons of the 50s. So while the designs are great, the character animation still feels decidedly Disney, and the two conflicting styles is a mixed bag, with some expressions quite effective and others seem quite basic. Despite the film's more simple look, there's also a few CG elements here, and a lot of them feel decidedly out of place in this barren western area, especially very unnecessary computer rendered shots of the farm. A final chase scene through a mine shaft and a giant locomotive are also CG designs, as are the endless herds of cattle Slim has rustled, all of which vary in terms of how well they integrate within the style.
So while I did enjoy the look of the movie, I wish I could say the same about the rest of it. The movie primarily plays itself off as goofy and light-hearted, with the three cows' personalities bouncing off each other, the quirky side characters and the laughable exploits of the villain. However, there's also many points in the film where the tone goes sour, the realization of the farm's foreclosure, the farm of Maggie's past being sold off, lots of shots of sad animals... and worst of all, played up with horrible country songs. It's such a mood whiplash, and a real bummer, and frankly bore, to watch. But those scenes aside, the comedic angle still doesn't work. While our main heroines are pretty one-dimensional to begin with, they could have elevated their characters (and our interest) a bit with some good dialogue, but rather we get a hurricane of snarky dialogue and terrible puns. Plus our lead is voiced by Roseanne, who gets real irritating real fast.
As I haven't done in a while, I can take some refuge in our villain on this one. Not so much in his character, but in the one real notable scene in the movie, where it's revealed his expert cattle rustling is due to his hypnotic yodeling. Yeah, sounds weird, but his musical number is pretty damn amazing. Randy Quaid did a great job voicing it, this technicolor madness-inducing fever dream of a sequence. If this scene was executed so well and is so clever and amusing, why couldn't the rest of the movie have been too?
Verdict? It's sorry to see such a legacy depart in a fashion like this. Even with its strong visual style, nothing can disguise this film's smallness in scope, from its thin story, juvenile dialogue and lack of any kind of suspense or genuine emotion toward our lead characters. This is another movie I suspect Disney pushed ahead despite production issues; there could have been a wacky self-conscious movie here, something akin to "New Groove," but they just didn't get there in time, I guess.