Dirs: Will Finn, John Sanford. US. 2003. 75mins.
The comedy is fun and the music has its moments, but by Disney standards Home On The Range is a lightweight animated offering, with little of the emotional pull exerted by the studio's best work. Kids should be able to pass a contented hour-and-a-quarter with the story's Old West setting and family of farmyard animals, and parents will enjoy the nicely contrasted cast of star voiceover talent. But reaching far enough beyond that core audience to recoup a reported $100m budget seems like a tall order.
The film, the first to be written and directed by veteran Disney animators Will Finn and John Sanford, opened in the US last week unfairly loaded down with expectation: it's the first hand-drawn project the studio has released since talks broke down with computer animation powerhouse Pixar and it could even be Disney's last such project, since no other fully hand-drawn features are currently in the works at the company.
The opening weekend US gross of $14m suggests that Home On The Range won't match the $85m domestic take of last autumn's Brother Bear. But like Brother Bear (which topped $130m outside the US) it could do better in international territories, where there will be plenty of opportunity for imaginative re-casting of the voiceover roles.
In the US version, Roseanne Barr and Judi Dench voice the two lead characters: Maggie, a sassy show cow who comes to live at an idyllic dairy farm, and Mrs Caloway, the prissy British bovine who acts as matriarch to the farmyard's happy collection of pigs, chickens and goats. When the farm's kindly human owner is threatened with eviction, Maggie, Mrs Caloway and wide-eyed younger cow Grace (voiced by Tilly) set off to foil the land-grab plot being hatched by comical outlaw Alameda Slim (Quaid).
The Barr-Dench pairing is one of the film's major assets and the script makes the most of the actors' contrasting personas. Another enjoyable performance comes from Cuba Gooding Jr as the voice of Buck, an adventure-starved young stallion who helps - and occasionally hinders - the three cows in their quest. Slim, his gormless sidekicks and other incidental characters are milked for comedy that's consistently amusing though never hilarious.
The animation backgrounds mix pastel Western vistas with bright, non-naturalistic colours for a pleasant, though distinctly 2D-looking effect. To its credit, the character animation seems to be reaching for something beyond generic Disney cuddliness, but a number of the animals are given oddly sharp features and none of them are distinctive enough to stand out as the real stars of the piece.
Alan Menken, of Beauty And The Beast and Little Mermaid fame, contributes the score and a handful of songs (with lyrics by Glenn Slater) which are performed by k d lang, Bonnie Raitt, Tim McGraw and cast member Quaid. There's nothing here that will attain the classic status of Menken's most humable melodies, but a couple of the songs give rise to enjoyably choreographed set pieces. The best musical sequence features a nutty country yodel number accompanied with a burst of psychedelic, Busby Berkeley-style animation.
Prod co: Walt Disney Pictures
US dist: Buena Vista Pictures
int'l dist: BVI
Prod: Alice Dewey Goldstone
Scr: Finn, Sanford
Assoc prod: David J Steinberg
Ed: H Lee Peterson
Art dir: David Cutler
Original score: Alan Menken
Original songs: Alan Menken (music), Glenn Slater (lyrics)
Story: Finn, Sanford, Michael LaBash, Sam Levine, Mark Kennedy, Robert Lence
Main cast (voices): Roseanne Barr, Judi Dench, Jennifer Tilly, Cuba Gooding Jr, Randy Quaid, Steve Buscemi