Home on the Range: The Last Roundup for Disney Animation?

From a National Catholic Register review

By Steven D. Greydanus

Is this how it finally ends for Walt Disney feature animation — not with a bang, not with a whimper… but with a moo?

Is Home on the Range really the final entry in the canon of Disney’s traditional hand-animated feature films — a body of work that goes back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and includes such landmarks as Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Beauty and the Beast?

In the long term, probably not. Chances are, sooner or later Walt Disney Pictures will return to the art form for which it is best known, and in which it has done its most respected work.

Still, Home on the Range represents the end of an era: For the first time since who knows when, Disney animation has no new feature film in the works, and no plans to start one.

At times in the past there have been lacunas of as much as four years between animated Disney features. But that was at a time when Disney animators had other projects, such as short subjects, to occupy them. This time it’s different: The main Disney animation studios in Orlando have been shut down, animators have been given their walking papers, and Disney is turning its attention away from traditional hand-drawn work to the animation technique in which the best work of the last ten years has been done: computer-generated cartoons.

Disney’s first homegrown computer-animated effort, Chicken Little, is scheduled for a 2005 release. (Dinosaur, released in 2000, doesn’t quite count as a computer-generated cartoon, since it superimposed pixel-painted dinosaurs and other characters onto real-life landscapes and location shots.)

Until now, computer-generated cartoons released under the Walt Disney label have all been produced by the wizard-geniuses at Pixar Animation Studios, whose résumé to date includes Finding Nemo, the Toy Story movies, and the still-to-come superhero spoof The Incredibles, directed by Brad Bird of The Iron Giant fame.

Pixar has been the driving force of computer animation, and the quality of their work has been consistently excellent: The closest they’ve come to making a bad film, which is not very, was the modestly charming A Bug’s Life. Computer-generated efforts from other studios, including Shrek, Ice Age, Antz, and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, have also managed to maintain a passing level of quality and entertainment value.

The medium’s only real stumbles to date have been the video-game flop Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which approached photorealism in its technique but used it to tell a lame, New-Agey sci-fi story, and the Christian-produced Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, which was unable to parlay the franchise’s kid-video success to the big screen. But both Jonah and Final Fantasy look so different from the likes of Toy Story and Jimmy Neutron that most viewers still associate computer-generated animation with consistently successful entertainment.

Eventually, of course, that’s got to change. What makes movies like Toy Story and Jimmy Neutron so successful is not just their colorful 3-D imagery, but their sharp, funny writing, compelling characters, and well-crafted stories. Finding Nemo wouldn’t be quite as eye-popping as a 2-D hand-drawn cartoon, but it would still be a great film. Conversely, a 2-D hand-drawn flop like Disney’s recent Brother Bear would be just as forgettable had it been rendered with computers.

This is significant, because what did in the Disney animation renaissance was not a failure of technique, but a failure of ideas. The animation revolution that began with the inspired newness of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast gave way to the increasingly obvious formula and tendentious political correctness Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame before finally succumbing to the lightweight inconsequentiality of Hercules and Tarzan. At that point, the Disney renaissance was dead.

But then Disney animation tried to reinvent itself again. For awhile, it looked as if they might succeed. The first hopeful sign was The Emperor’s New Groove, an entertainingly wacky morality tale from a studio looking for their own new groove. This was followed by Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which, though even more overtly New Agey than Pocahontas, at least represented an effort to think outside the box with its swashbuckling pulp-fantasy story devoid of musical numbers or animal sidekicks.

Then came post-renaissance Disney’s biggest success: Lilo & Stitch, a kind of dysfunctional E.T. story that, given the Disney tradition of orphaned protagonists and absentee parents, was surprisingly frank about the emotional consequences of growing up in a broken home in depicting the neediness and antisocial behavior of its young heroine.

But hopes for a new era of Disney creativity ended with the costly failure of Treasure Planet, a pretty good film that had a much bigger price tag than Lilo but did far less business at the box office.

The two last gasps of Disney feature animation, Brother Bear and Home on the Range, recapitulate in a way the failure of the current age of Disney animation. Brother Bear, with its origins in the Lion King era, is a direct throwback to the height of the Disney renaissance with its eco-spirituality and political correctness. And Home on the Range represents an effort to recapture the wacky post-renaissance energy of The Emperor’s New Groove. (It even briefly brings back Patrick Warburton, who all but steals his scenes in New Groove as the culinarily inclined henchman Kronk.)

But Home on the Range, while passable entertainment, ultimately reflects Disney’s failure to find their new groove. The story, about a trio of cows who leave the farm to capture a cattle rustler and save their farm with the reward money, is generic — in fact, it oddly resembles the plot of another 2004 release, the virtually unseen Clifford’s Really Big Movie, in which a trio of dogs leave their homes to win a contest in order to help Clifford’s owners support him.

Characters are each assigned a maximum of one character trait and one attribute: Maggie (Roseanne Barr) is brash and large, Mrs. Calloway (Judi Dench — yes, Judi Dench) is straitlaced and wears a hat, Grace (Jennifer Tilly) is flaky and sings off-key. It’s fitfully amusing, and there are a few goofy conceits, especially the cattle rustler’s unique approach of controlling cows, which is similar to the way the Pied Piper worked on rats, except it involves yodeling instead of playing a flute. But there’s nothing to compare with the inspired zaniness of Emperor’s New Groove. Nor is there anything like Emperor’s moral message, or its warmly pro-family depiction of Pascha and his very pregnant, attractive wife and mother of two.

Home on the Range is a good argument for Disney taking a break from animated features for awhile. But if they think switching from hand-drawn to computer-generated is going to solve their woes, they’re as mistaken as a yodeling cattle rustler trying to hypnotize a tone-deaf cow. Sooner or later somebody will release a computer-generated cartoon turkey. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be called Chicken Little.

Tags: Disney Animation, Disney: Eye on the Mouse, Animation, Family

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