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"Home on the Range" Proves Defiantly Nostalgic

In 2000, with the impending changeover to the higher technology (and thusly, more modern storytelling) of the Playstation 2, Squaresoft chose to make Final Fantasy IX, its last Playstation entry in the famous series, in the story and tone styles of their earlier old-school games. The result (of course, in the humble opinion of this minor animation critic) was a game that was good but not great, but was somehow able to utilize nostaglia for entirely positive purposes. That game has much in common with Home On The Range. As the Disney artists stand on the precipice of being forced to abandon the art form that has served them so well for oh so many years, perhaps it is only fitting that there is a form of silent rebellion present in this last traditionally animated film. If they've gotta go down in a blaze of non-glory, it'll be in tribute of the greater Golden Age of animation.

This film is a marriage of the settings and tones of 50s Disney shorts like The Brave Engineer and Pigs Is Pigs, coupled with the look and humor of shorts like Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. This makes Home on the Range come across as a very different type of humor than the sarcastic lunacy of something like The Emperor's New Groove. Instead, it utilizes a gentle brand of humor that seems quaint at first- remember, this is the style of Disney shorts, not Looney Tunes, which were lot more sanitary and quietly goofy than the Termite Terrace works. By using this style, the film seems like it's already at least 30 years old. Which is, I think, very much the point. There are two messages being sent by the choice made by the filmmakers Will Finn and John Sanford: 1. An old style can seem bracingly new when it suddenly returns and juxtaposes itself against entertainment as we're used to it nowadays, and 2. There are far more ways of telling a story than a certain uber-popular form (involving....oh, I don't know, computers?). The computer use in Home on the Range is present but only to achieve cinematographic things that cannot be done on flat backgrounds, or other invisible purposes.


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Perhaps that's why the filmmakers seem to be going for broke this time with the characters and the characterization. There's fine voice-acting all around, for one. There is something about animation that makes comedians with far greater capacities for severe annoyance more than bearable, but often very funny and even dramatically effective. This time, treading the ground covered by people like Eddie Murphy, Rosie O'Donnell, and David Spade, the main character of Maggie finally affords Roseanne the chance to do something of quality in what seems like years of literal absence. Naturally, Judi Dench is superb, as if we expected any less. The most intriguing character to me was Buck (Cuba Gooding, Jr., making Range a film that re-realizes TWO people's careers), who functioned as a comic relief, an antagonist, and a hero all at once. But most importantly, the angular UPA-ish characters are more three-dimensional than I've ever seen them by virtue of the superlative animation work. Chris Buck, Mark Henn, Duncan Majoribanks, Michael Surrey, and the rest of the animation team achieve some of their best acting work that I've seen in a good, long time. Brother Bear was more lavish, but this one is worlds more effective. Really, the question of why these comedians are so much more effective in animation is because their performances are greatly assisted by the visual work of these masters. It is another strong measure of proof that to deny these guys their pencils is the exact opposite of artistic support.

Still, it wouldn't be fair to play nice with this film just because of what it represents. This is absolutely Menken's least memorable score, beyond a shadow of a doubt. I will admit that I've never been much for country music, but then, I never listened to gospel before I saw Hercules and that film's score was superb. Of course, I'm also annoyed at the use of marquee country names in the songs. Not that they're bad; frankly, I barely noticed. But it's a cheap selling point for the advertisers at Disney and an excuse for them to not rely on the real strengths of the film. Also, at 75 minutes, I think the film moves too fast in both its introduction and its conclusion. While the girls are off of Patch of Heaven, the film is perfectly paced and, frankly, is at its funniest. This is blessedly the bulk of the film. However, the first and last sections of the film are both overstuffed and way too fast, akin to the ridiculously breakneck pace of Teacher's Pet. Maybe if the film was a nice 90 minutes, there'd be time to allow Maggie to have a sense of Patch of Heaven before she gets all gung-ho to save the damned place. The farm animals would be more developed, so that the scenes that cut back to them have more weight. Pearl could actually react to the missing cows before she settles into her resigned sadness that we do get to see. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but 75 minutes seems like a suspiciously round number. With these squished ends of the film, were Finn and Sanford forced to hit a predetermined minute count? With the rest of the film so well-constructed, it makes a guy wonder.

Despite the seeming appropriateness of this harkening-back to a classical style, it is still depressing that it is on this good-not-great note that the reign must end with Disney. I do not fear that I will never see traditional animation again. Japan still produces fine, the destruction of the Orlando studio has created several new studios in its wake, and Pixar is likely to start its own traditional studio and make Disney eat serious crow. But until all of this gets up to proper speed, we are now officially in a new Dark Age, as short as it may (hopefully) be. I love many, if not most, of the CGI films we've seen thus far, but it cannot truly take the place of the other art form, no matter what Eisner may say. The good news is worth noting, though. As evidenced by the inclinations of Home on the Range, the artists in this industry are aware of the history of their art, and will continue to inform their work by the best virtues of that period.

Three (***) stars out of four (****)


A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on April 4, 2004

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