THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Home on the Range’

The one that signalled the end of traditional animation.

When big-budget animated space blockbuster Treasure Planet debuted in 2002, it was hoped the film would herald a new age of traditional animation for the Disney studio. After its spectacular failure at the box office, the polar opposite occurred and the Disney executive team could no longer deny the inevitable end of traditional animated feature films had finally arrived. Audiences had moved on, and, sadly, it was time for Disney to follow suit.

As such, then-CEO Michael Eisner made the difficult decision to cease development on any further traditional animated projects that weren’t already in the works. Over six decades after Walt Disney created the first feature-length animated film, the studio who defined the very art form of hand-drawn animation was putting it to bed. Despite the outcries of chairman Roy E. Disney, who valued the legacy of his uncle’s work more than anyone at the studio, Eisner’s mind was firmly set.

With only two projects currently in production, Eisner determined these would be the final two traditional animated films from the studio, with Disney now switching focus to computer animation in a desperate bid to beat Pixar at the very game it invented with Toy Story in 1995. One of those films in development was the adorable animal flick Brother Bear, while the other was a western-themed project that had been stuck in development hell for close to five years.

After completing work on Pocahontas, director Mike Gabriel pitched a supernatural western concept (yes, a supernatural western concept) to then-Feature Animation president Peter Schneider, who, for some unknown reason, loved the idea. Under the working title Sweating Bullets, the film would tell the story of a timid cowboy who visits a ghost town and confronts an undead cattle owner named Slim and his herd of ghost cows. After Gabriel spent over a year reworking the story treatment, including changing the film to a coming-of-age tale centred on a shy bull named Bullets, Schneider felt the project simply wasn’t coming together.

In an attempt to salvage the languishing production, Schneider enlisted story artists Michael LaBash, Sam Levine, Mark Kennedy, Robert Lence, and Shirley Pierce to develop a new storyline from Gabriel’s initial pitch. LaBash suggested adding three female cow protagonists to the film and the team of writers reworked the narrative to centre on the farm animals’ attempts to save their beloved farm from foreclosure. By 2000, Schneider was still unhappy with the film’s progress and removed Gabriel from the project.

The project was then assigned to animator/director Will Finn, who had recently returned to Disney after defecting in the late 1990s to join Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks Animation, where he co-directed their animated flop The Road to El Dorado. In his time with Disney, Finn had worked on films like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, giving him a keen sense of the Disney production process and the studio’s animators.

As such, Finn was confident he could steer the beleaguered production in the right direction and agreed to co-write and co-direct the film with screenwriter John Sanford. Utilising storyboard workshop meetings with key members of the production team, Finn and Sanford reworked the film for the umpteenth time including splitting the character of Bullet into two characters; a wannabe bounty hunter horse named Buck and a buffalo named Junior, who served as the faithful steed of the film’s cattle rustler antagonist, Alameda Slim.

Slim also went through several changes, with the villain initially written as a nefarious presidential candidate and a greedy gold miner before the story team settled on a cattle rustling land baron with the innate ability to hypnotise animals with his yodelling ability. The narrative was reworked to centre on Slim stealing cattle from various farms and swooping in to purchase the land as each farm was forced to shut down.

After Slim performs his dastardly deed on Dixon Ranch and snatches up the farm, the ranch’s lone surviving cow Maggie is sold to Pearl, a kind and elderly woman who runs a small farm called Patch of Heaven, home to various farm animals including two other cows, Grace and Mrs. Caloway. When Pearl is informed she is behind on her mortgage payments and has three days to pay the bank $750 or her farm will be sold to the highest bidder, Maggie convinces the other cows to venture into town in search of a solution to Pearl’s money troubles. It’s here they learn of a $750 reward for the capture of Slim, with the three cows thus becoming the unlikeliest of bounty hunters.

By all accounts, the story was rewritten constantly even as production officially commenced in early 2001. Finn and Sanford were inspired by the cartoon shorts of Bugs Bunny and sought to infuse as much slapstick comedy and humourous dialogue into the film as possible. Unlike other Disney animated productions, which utilised dazzling computer animation effects or attempted to craft a live-action production in animated form, the co-directors were adamant in creating a silly comedy aimed squarely at a younger audience.

In keeping with this theme, the animation team were encouraged to create character designs that looked like cartoon characters and deviated away from Disney’s recent history of crafting realistic-looking animals. Animator Joe Moshier was tasked with overseeing the character designs and drew heavy inspiration from the work of legendary Disney animator Milt Kahl. The three cow protagonists were designed in wildly different ways to differentiate each character and their unique personality, with Mrs. Caloway designed in a boxy style, Grace designed with sharp triangular features, and Maggie created with an endearing roundness.

The animation team did spend time observing cows at a local California dairy farm, but were disappointed to find cows do very little but stand and eat grass all day, which didn’t exactly lend itself to the narrative of three bovine bounty hunters. But the team did notice certain subtleties in their facial movements and their “soulful eyes,” which provided a reference for dialogue animation. They also noted how expressive cows could be with their tails and incorporated these movements to convey the emotional state of each cow character like swishing furiously when they were scared or angry.

In the casting of the three cow protagonists, Finn and Sanford sought actors who could perfectly encapsulate the unique character traits of each bovine. Maggie was written as a brash and boisterous character, which led them to television star and Roseanne Barr, whose entire persona matched that of Maggie’s. For the role of Grace, the filmmakers approached Jennifer Tilly, who felt like the perfect choice for the ditzy and somewhat vain character who consistently sings off-key. And for the matriarch role of straitlaced and uppity Mrs. Calloway, the team offered the role to Dame Judi Dench, who genuinely stunned the filmmakers by agreeing to the role. It’s a decision that still confounds the mind these days.

For the role of Alameda Slim, the filmmakers turned to Randy Quaid, who they knew could bring the outlandish character to life. Veteran Disney animator Dale Baer was assigned the task of animating Slim and spent hours watching Quaid in the recording studio for inspiration in Slim’s character designs. Quaid often physically acted scenes out while he was reading his lines, utilising wild gestures and expressions to essentially transform into the character. Baer used video recordings of Quaid’s lively recording sessions as reference for much of his animation work, particularly during Slim’s yodelling musical performance “Yodel-Adle-Eedle-Idle-Oo.”

The animated sequence of the track took heavy inspiration from the “Pink Elephants on Parade” number in Dumbo and “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat” from The Aristocats, with the scene featuring a psychedelic explosion of colours to mirror the hypnosis effect transfixed upon the cows. While Quaid provided the initial vocals for the track, two expert champion yodelers (yes, that’s a thing) were hired to perform the more complex yodelling elements of the song, which were then seamlessly blended with Quaid’s original singing.

While Home on the Range would be another example of a non-musical Disney animated feature, Finn and Sanford still wished to utilise music as a key element of the film’s emotional core. The filmmakers turned to Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken to write original songs to underscore key scenes. Working with lyricist Glenn Slater, Menken crafted six new songs for the film, all of which featured a decidedly country music tone to match the film’s rural setting. As such, Menken enlisted country music superstars, Bonnie Raitt and Tim McGraw, alongside contemporary singer k.d. lang, to perform the tracks.

To accompany a particularly sombre moment of the film where all hope seems lost, Menken wrote the track “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again” in the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, which was performed by Raitt. While the song ultimately worked in the context of the film, it also captured the mood of a nation in mourning and despair during one of its darkest days. For Slim’s villain song “Yodel-Adle-Eedle-Idle-Oo,” Menken incorporated several famous pieces of classical music into the number including the “William Tell Overture,” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and the “1812 Overture.” Why, you may ask? I have no idea. And I doubt Menken did either.

Home on the Range opened on April 2, 2004, to relatively negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert deemed the film “fun for kids” with “broad, outrageous characters,” but felt it lacked the “crossover quality of great Disney films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King,” while The New York Times felt “its formulaic desire to mix wisecracks for adults with pratfalls for kids is feeling thin, and its overall air of frantic hysteria does not wear well either,” and the Chicago Tribune believed the film “keeps milking the same gags and throwing the same bull, and after a while, you feel cowed watching it.”

The reaction from the general public was equally as negative, with Home on the Range grossing a middling $14 million in its U.S. opening weekend. By the end of its theatrical run, the film had barely grossed $50 million in the U.S. with a further $95 million elicited internationally for a disappointing total worldwide gross of $145 million. With a staggering budget of $110 million (!), the film represented another huge financial disaster for the Disney studio, with estimates between $70 million and $110 million in losses.

It’s no exaggeration to call Home on the Range one of the lowest points in the history of Disney animation. It was the one film I was dreading rewatching for this project, and, I’m sorry to say, the film has not aged any better since 2004. It’s just as confoundingly annoying and dreadfully pointless as it was 16 years ago. It was rare to find Disney crafting an animated movie exclusively targeted at children, but Home on the Range is nothing more than a 76-minute distraction for little ones, and even then, it’s hard to say if it will actually succeed at doing so.

Unless you suddenly find yourself with the sudden urge to hear Dame Judi Dench voice a cow (why, Judi, why?) or listen to Randy Quaid yodel while a group of cows inexplicably change colour, there’s little reason to bother with this film. The storyline is an absolute mess, particularly Maggie’s befuddled character arc and motivations, and it’s bluntly apparent the narrative was amended so many times during production, the filmmakers lost track of where the hell it all was going.

Several supporting characters enter Home on the Range early in the film, only to then abruptly vanish before returning later in the narrative went the filmmakers seemingly remembered who they were. The ending brings absolutely zero conclusion to the whereabouts of the endless herds of cattle Slim stole from various farms including Dixon Ranch, as if the filmmakers forgot they existed. And the happy ending where everyone is miraculously the best of friends doesn’t make a lick of sense in the context of several characters’ earlier villainous actions. The fact six screenwriters (yes, six) worked on this script and it’s still a chaotic mess is truly stunning.

While it was admirable Finn and Sanford wanted to craft a comedy in the same vein as the Looney Tunes cartoons, Home on the Range spends an exhaustive amount of time attempting to be funny and the end result is rather exhausting for anyone over the age of 5. It’s an endless stream of slapstick humour, irritating characters, and low-brow comedy that feels completely out of place in a Disney animated feature. Even youngsters likely wouldn’t find this claptrap amusing, but it’s a passable enough distraction for a Sunday afternoon. That’s not a quality you generally associate with Disney animation, leaving Home on the Range to stand out as one of Disney’s biggest missteps.

After six decades of traditional hand-drawn Disney animation that captured the hearts of millions around the globe, the art form came to a cataclysmic close with Home on the Range. Yes, there are still two more traditional films to come, but, for the time being, Disney was finished with the style of animation that made the studio a household name. With Home on the Range, the days of tradition animation do not end with a triumphant bang, but with a flat moo.

Is Home on the Range a Disney Classic? No.

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