Friday, December 13, 2013

The Big No-No

Many people will say that Walt Disney Feature Animation went through something of a dark age or two at some point in time. The first dark age is usually said to be the post-Walt/pre-Second Golden Age years, roughly the late 1960s up until 1986. The second, well… Was a little more recent. The post-Renaissance era, namely an era that contained most of the films produced after Tarzan and before John Lasseter took over Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2006.

That certainly was a dark age. The early-to-mid 1970s was a period of stagnation and uncertainty, Disney made lower budget features like The Aristocats and Robin Hood, which both seemed closer to Saturday morning shenanigans than the epics of Pinocchio or Bambi, or the storytelling greatness of Cinderella or Lady and the Tramp. Both films were subpar, showing that Disney was only in it for the money at that point. The success of The Jungle Book proved to executives that - Walt or not - animated features still needed to be made and were very viable in the long run. This laziness was soon counteracted by the likes of Don Bluth and many young animators, who were hungering for the day they made their own Snow White. A transitional time, if you will… Not necessarily a dark age, because we still got a bright gem like The Rescuers out of the era along with some other impressive work. A "rough" age. At least the company's integrity wasn't completely stripped away…

Then there's the post-1999/pre-2006 era… This is when executives were given more control over Walt Disney Feature Animation, and as a result, their films began showing major weaknesses and problems. By this time, then-CEO Michael Eisner morphed Disney into a soulless corporation, steering it away from the "standard bearer of family entertainment" status. The executives did get their way during the Renaissance to some extent, as many of those films stuck to the Broadway break-out-and-sing/cute animal sidekick/epic love story/comedy formula that obviously didn't suit stories like Pocahontas or a decidedly dark novel like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to say nothing of Greek myth Hercules or the legend of Hua Mulan. You can't just take those stories and apply the Little Mermaid template to it.

So after the formula wore thin, the plan was to now tackle new genres. Always good, right? Well, unfortunately, Disney's artists, story people and animators were merely allowed to experiment. They had to get their ideas past hordes of executives in order to get them to the boss (nowadays, they only have to present the ideas of to John Lasseter), and most of the time, their best ideas were supplanted by inferior ones. Executives having too much power over a studio is a nightmare to begin with, executives who only saw animation as kiddie stuff ruling over the animation powerhouse that is Disney is an even bigger nightmare.

Thus we got films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear and this. Lilo & Stitch nearly dodged the bullet, but the very little meddling that went on behind the scenes still hurt it in some ways. The other three are films that can't be what they want to be, because the artists' ideas were outweighed by what the executives wanted. Atlantis isn't allowed to be a work of compelling storytelling, it's pretty much forced to be a summer blockbuster blow-em-up extravaganza. It isn't allowed to be a little more intense and violent despite all the action and gunfire, not to mention the really high body count. Atlantis also loses its steam completely once they get to the lost city, because the executives had the team throw out an hour's worth of material that probably would've made the film better, perhaps more fleshed out. Treasure Planet is creative as hell (I mean, c'mon, 17th century pirates-and treasure-adventure… In spaaaaaaaaaaace!), and the story isn't too bad either, but then you get the feeling that it's trying too hard to appeal to the extreme sports crowd and teenagers, much like Don Bluth's Titan A.E. Then it also tries to please kids with a constantly shouting robot side character, who could've very well been funny without acting obnoxiously. Brother Bear also has a good story with a good amount of depth, some creative sparkle and jaw-dropping art direction… But then you have Koda gabbing every second he can, belting out modern slang and toilet jokes that make the film feel like an older DreamWorks film. Were they trying to one-up the potty humor in Shrek? I think so. Imagine if Bambi was like that? *shudder*

Then we get to Home On The Range

By the time this film entered production, Disney executives had already botched so many films that could've been great and consequently ran the animation studio - one of the most important players in animation and cinema history that gave us the likes of Snow White and Pinocchio - into the ground. This film was not going to be any exception whatsoever, and this film already had a troubled history behind it. It began life as Sweating Bullets around the time Pocahontas was finished, which that film's director Mike Gabriel was set to direct alongside Pocahontas art director Mike Giaimo. The story went through multiple changes and by 2002, the two directors were off the project. Will Finn and John Sanford, first-time directors, replaced them. They had inherited a mess, and they were going to make a mess… They had to.

Sanford himself confirmed this in a 2008 interview, saying that the executives - upset with how the teen-chasing Atlantis performed - had him and Finn gear the film towards toddlers. The very audience that you should never ever aim a family-friendly film towards, especially a Disney film…

The Disney executives were essentially similar to the general public, the average joe who doesn't know much about animation or the rich history of Walt Disney's company. These people assume that anything by Disney or anything animated is for kids first and foremost, of course one of life's greatest lies.

"We don't make movies for children." - Walt Disney

Walt and other people in the animation world will tell you that making a film for everyone, not just a certain age group, is the winning option. If you make a film for kids only, it fails… Because it's only for kids. It's simple, really. Why do so many adults enjoy Disney? Why do you, the reader, enjoy something from Disney? Because it's also made for you. Then they'll say, "Yeah it's for adults, but it's really more for kids." Lies. Walt himself outright said that he made films for the whole family. He made them suitable for kids, but he really aimed the stories and heart and intellect at the adults. "Our most important audience out there are those freethinking adults". Pixar does the same, any good animation studio does the same…

The executives at Disney did not want to do this, they wanted to make kids films and Home On The Range is a perfect example of their mindlessness. Its existence is kind of a good thing, as it could be used to teach people how not to make an animated feature… Especially a big-budget Disney animated feature!

Home On The Range's biggest problem is that it's a kids-only film, not made to engage adults in any way. It's something that's more suited for a kids TV channel like Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network. Of course, talent like Will Finn and John Sanford plus all of Disney's artists wouldn't want to make a film like this for Disney Feature Animation. If it was for a kid channel or something else, they'd probably be fine with that.

What's worse is that you can see a decent, if not good movie buried under all the pap. Home On The Range, when you dig deeper, shows that it wants to be the next Emperor's New Groove. A wacky, Warner Bros.-esque Western for the entire family loaded to the brim with witty jokes, an irreverent edge and broad cartoony humor. This could've been gold, really. The Emperor's New Groove is the cult classic that it is because it not only pushes the 90s Disney formula aside, but it also has this energy to it that's irresistible and it's genuinely funny, but not without characters you care about or heart.

Home On The Range doesn't have characters that you really care about. Its story isn't terrible, nor is it any great shakes. In fact, the story is well put together and it's not really all that bad… The problem is, your plot could be as good as anything, but you need good characters to make you care about what's going on. Home On The Range's story, I'll admit, is okay. It could've been a very good story had our leads been likable characters, but the screenplay is bad. Because the film aims to be kiddie fare, the characters just aren't that interesting. Maggie is essentially Roseanne in animated (cow) form, who specializes in painful comedy routine-esque one-liners. Mrs. Calloway is the prim and proper who scoffs at Maggie's behavior. Grace on the other hand, is just kind of there to crack a one-liner, if no one else will.

Then there's Buck, the sheriff's horse who is a fanboy of the rather cool bounty hunter Rico who also just wants to kick butt… Gee, doesn't that sound like a character created by a focus group? A horse screaming "Hi-yah!" and doing kung fu? The kids will dig him! Toys will fly off the shelves in no time! Man, how many times have we seen that character or that attitude in kid shows? Actually, to be fair, there is a pretty neat daydream sequence where the horse takes out a few gunslingers. A moment that suggests how different this film could've been.

The rest of the cast is mostly forgettable. The villain, Alameda Slim, boasts an interesting character design but he's got no real depth. He's just a cattle rustler who hypnotizes cows (through yodeling!) and sells them because… Of course… Money!

His yodeling's power over cattle was a decent idea for the story, it's just too bad that the story doesn't move you in any way! Earlier versions of this villain were actually much more interesting. In Sweating Bullets, he was a vengeful undead who lead cows to their demise by having them fall off of cliffs because he was trampled to death by them. Another version had him hypnotizing cows because he wanted to form an army of them, storm the White House and become President. Honestly, they should've went with that because the goal they ended up giving him is, in a storytelling sense, too safe. I mean, a guy wanting to become President and obtain power is too 90s Disney-ish, but it's way more interesting than just making mountains of money. ("Mine! Mine! Mine!") Oh wait, he wants to use that money to buy all the land in the area. Why? He wants to get back at the farm owners who fired him… But that's mentioned once. Plus, forming an army of cattle to take over the White House already given the fact that he can manipulate them through yodeling? C'mon, that sounds insanely awesome!

Nope, big bad guy looking to get back at farm owners for not appreciating his yodeling abilities it is. Thus we have to worry about our bland characters possibly getting sold and eaten, because apparently Disney should be in the business of making animated movies about animals that meat-eaters eat in a comical adventure about escaping a dinner plate fate. Chicken Run you are not!

Anyways, the villain is mostly dull. Wesley, the slimy fellow who buys the cows also has a weird, interesting character design but he's only in it for like a few minutes. Rico is badass, but there's really not much to him and there is a twist that reveals he's just two-faced. The rest of the cast is either cutesy-wootsy farm animals (well, I did like the goat, that's about it) or boring human characters, such as the Patch of Heaven's owner who isn't all that developed either… In fact, she only has a few lines, too. There's also Lucky Jack, a peg-legged rabbit who could've been funny but he's not well-used either! I guess the best character in this movie was the Patrick Warburton-voiced horse who Buck tricks into running from Rico, that was actually one of the funnier bits in the movie. It's kind of telling when your film's best character is one who appears for less than a few minutes.

So with poor character work comes an equally poor screenplay. Again, the executives wanted this one to be a toddler picture, much like Brother Bear before it. While it's not loaded with unnecessary toilet humor like Brother Bear was, it's mostly a peachy-keen story with gags that just don't work. Sanford said the best jokes were cut out after the studio test screened the film for toddlers, and boy does the film validate what he said. Most of the jokes in this movie feel like a little kids show trying to be funny, sure the youngest of audiences will laugh, but everyone else? Ughhhhh…

There are some jokes that are funny that come out of nowhere, but most of the film is littered with these lame attempts at being funny alongside Roseanne's stupid one-liners. In many scenes, it feels like there's a funny joke waiting to happen, but it doesn't occur. There's this running gag, for instance, where Slim's nephew henchmen can't tell who he is when he puts on a disguise and they freak out. This could've been hilarious, but the way it's written and the way it's acted is just awkward and smacks of poor timing. The rest of the comedy is pretty much this, and then there's Roseanne's lines. Comedy club reject lines more like. I bet that "Stallion of the Ci-Moron" line was thrown in by executives, because DreamWorks - or more appropriately Jeffrey Katzenberg - wanted to stick it to Disney at the time, and Shrek did have some mean-spirited jabs at them. Having that line in there makes it look like Disney was part of the little mud-slinging match, when they could've been mature and just avoided poking at DreamWorks altogether. The script is just a really bad mix of these jokes.

The animation on the other hand is mostly solid, going for that style that New Groove went for but with a mix of the 1950s Disney style, which can be seen in the art direction of the desert, which is for the most part pretty decent. The color work, at times, is pretty impressive. After all, some of the finest of them all worked on this very film. The problem is, the character animation doesn't do much and a lot of it is rather forced. The character animation is about as interesting as the characters themselves. Everything just looks so flat and uninteresting, and when an animal does something cartoony, it just doesn't elicit any laughs. The movements just don't work. A lot of computer animation is also used. Even mere backgrounds, such as the interior of the farm owner's house during the rainstorm or just trees, rock formations even! It makes the settings look awkward, and many random objects are done in CGI as well, and they stand out a little too much. Conspicuous CGI to a tee.

It would've been nice if the film worked off of its limited budget and went for a minimalist style, which it tries to do, but all of that unnecessary CGI makes it look very cheap. Some shots of the non-CGI parts also look like something out of a Disney Television Animation show from the era. There's penny-pinching everywhere, and it's not pretty. It's just not all that great-looking, and the other big problem is that many of the character designs are way too cute. Yes, Disney has mastered the art of making such cute, appealing characters, but they were never overdone. They didn't look like things you'd see on baby toys or whatever, but in this film, the designs come a little too close to looking like that. It just makes the film look like a preschooler show, though some character designs rise above that a bit: Alameda Slim, Wesley, Rico, Lucky Jack, Jeb and Buck. It's just sad because, again, Disney's animators and artists had to make this. I feel bad that they had to…

At least it doesn't look terrible. Working within a limited budget does restrain in many ways, and like I've said, the look of it does have some positive qualities to it. An all-out minimalist style without much CGI or anything would've been just fine. After all, this is Disney Animation, so if it can't look great, it's at least going to try very hard to look great.

Limited budget you say? Well, the film was reported to have cost $110 million, but that's because the previous incarnations of the film added to the finished film's cost, which must've been somewhere around $60 million… Maybe even less. The Emperor's New Groove began life as Kingdom of the Sun - which was a radically different film from the finished product - in 1997. As it was entering physical production, it was canceled and a good $25 million had already been spent on the picture. The Emperor's New Groove itself cost $75 million, hence the $100 million budget. This is basically the same deal. Tangled, also.

This shot is beautiful...

So… Weak characters, kiddie-flick tone, poor writing, mostly underwhelming visuals… Does anything else work in this film? Well, Alan Menken's songs are actually good. They're not the most memorable, but they aren't cringeworthy either. "Patch of Heaven" is a fun, country-esque ditty, but it doesn't leave you humming. The opening song is pretty good, recalling the Disney films of the 1950s and we do get a fun chase sequence to go along with that. (Also, clever use of the Walt Disney Pictures logo at the beginning!) Alameda Slim's yodel tune tries too hard to emulate the surrealism of "Pink Elephants on Parade" and "Heffalumps and Woozles" in the visual department (it's too simple, colorful cattle really isn't enough), musically it's just okay. "Will The Sun Ever Shine Again?" is a nice, lightly somber number, but since the story gives you little to care about, it almost feels like it's all for naught. A decent soundtrack to say the least…

In fact, the score is pretty decent too, as it feels like it belongs in a big animated Disney movie for the most part. Too bad the visuals and writing don't match it. Poor Alan Menken, all that talent slapped onto this mediocrity.

That's pretty much what Home On The Range is. Mediocrity. Boring, often cringeworthy mediocrity. As a kids-only movie, it's the best it can be. If you're a kid, it's probably for you, though kids should be shown the best Disney films, the ones that don't talk down to them. Home On The Range is essentially the very definition of pandering, and it's so unfortunate because this could've been something really fun. Something bursting with energy and all-out wacky humor, again - a Wild West Emperor's New Groove! It would've been awesome! But it isn't allowed to be, all thanks to clueless executives who knew very little about animation and saw very little in it. The same executives who approved of the Disney direct-to-video sequels that also badly hurt hand-drawn animation, the Disney brand and the original films… All for a quick buck, no less! They didn't "get" animation, nor did they get Disney animation. You might as well assign someone who sees comic books as trivial kids' stuff to write a superhero film. In the process, you get something like Catwoman.

Of course, the biggest stab in the heart is the fact that this is one of the very reasons why American traditional animation was shown the door, in the very country where it blossomed from the very studio who made it blossom the way it did. I really wish that Bob Iger and all the people running Disney right now would get it through their heads that lame movies like this and terrible management were the reasons why hand-drawn films sunk at the box office, not the medium. People avoid lame computer animated films in this day and age, now that the fad has ended a long time ago. (Shark Tale would've tanked hard if released today, ditto Chicken Little.) People avoid lame animated movies, period.

People also avoid animated movies that look lame, movies that look lame as opposed to being lame. Case in point, The Princess and the Frog! Do I have to keep bringing its slipshod marketing campaign up? Do I need to keep reminding Disney of how badly they marketed this film? Do I need to remind them of the dunderheaded title change?

Get… It… Through… Your… Heads… Audiences like traditional animation! Audiences don't like BAD traditional animation!

Audiences liked The Princess and the Frog! It had very, very strong legs at the box office and fought the tidal wave that had Avatar, Sherlock Holmes and the Chipmunks sequel! Making $104 million domestically off of a weak $24 million is nothing to scoff at! It sold very well on home media! Tiana is everywhere on effing merchandise! People like the movie very much! That has nothing to do with it being hand-drawn or computer animated!

People see good movies, people see movies that look good!

Do I need to spell it out in any other way?!

*deep breath, deep breath*

Anyways, Home On The Range got mixed reviews at best, it didn't quite get the critical beating that Brother Bear kind of unfairly got. It opened low, as expected, and crept its way up to a weak $50 million domestic total and made $103 million worldwide. Now, I don't know if Michael Eisner, David Stainton and everyone else engaged in a big conspiracy to kill hand-drawn by making the films poor, marketing them badly and having them fail, but the way Disney Feature Animation was beaten to a pulp during this era makes for a painful part of Disney history. Thank goodness the madness stopped (I think a lot of people take what Lasseter and Catmull have done for the studio for granted), but hand-drawn remains something of a casualty of this era.

I wish the business people realized for one minute that Eisner's mismanagement of the company and the decision to swamp Disney Feature Animation with ignorant executives hurt hand-drawn. I wish they'd realize that poor marketing hurt films like The Princess and the Frog. I really wish they would… John Lasseter, Ed Catmull and everyone at Disney wants to bring hand-drawn back… They really do! It finds its way to theater screens via short films like Paperman and Get A Horse!, Disney's computer animation goes for a painterly style, but that really is not enough… The traditional Disney animation style should never be a thing of the past… Never

Home On The Range was a weak film, un-Disney in many ways. Disney Animation should never pander to toddlers, never. It should never be for toddlers or kids first and foremost. Worse, in addition to the fact that it could've been good, it helped hurt a beautiful art form. A beautiful medium that Walt Disney worked so hard to bolster… The film provides an excellent lesson: Executive meddling should be kept at a minimum in animation, or better yet… It should be banished from feature animation in its entirety. Never let people who don't give a damn about animation be the heads of animation film production. That goes for other studios, too!

A debacle of epic proportions…

"Home On The Range" is in the fifth tier of my ever-changing best-to-worst Disney animated classics list. What are your thoughts on this Disney animated feature? Sound off below!


  1. I watched this movie when I was 10 (I think), so I was in the target audience, and while I thought it wasn't as good as the previous Disney classics, I liked it.

    Nowadays, I absolutely have no desire to watch it again, nor do I want to own it, and I do think it's one of the studio's weakest film (but not the weakest, that goes to Chicken Little), but if I will watch it in the future, I don't think I'd cringe or feel awkward while watching it. Maybe because of my forgivingness, but if it wasn't made by Disney, I wouldn't really have any problems with it.

  2. To my way of thinking, HOME ON THE RANGE was the first bad Disney animated feature of Walt Disney Feature Animation. The germ of a great film is there--is should have been as hilarious as EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE or THE ARISTOCATS, but the jokes literally fall flat, and the timing is often off. It's a beautiful-looking film; the art direction is really amazing, and the animation is marvelous. The music is quite good as well, particularly "Will the Sun Ever Shine Again?" I remember hearing that song at the time and wondering the same thing about Disney animation.

    Will Finn actually did have some directing experience, having started out on THE ROAD TO EL DORADO for DreamWorks. I admire him greatly as a person and as an animator, but I think his work as a director speaks for itself.

    When I was writing for Laughing Place, I did a study of all the Disney animated features (the cannon), through TREASURE PLANET, watching them in order and reflecting on what I learned on the process. ( Doing that, I was able to identify and name the different periods of Disney animation. I've often thought that if I was doing that study again, the era of HOME ON THE RANGE through (and including) BOLT would be The Dark Age. To me, the greatest tragedy was that not even ten years prior, Disney was producing masterpieces like THE LION KING and POCAHONTAS, and those same artists were pushed into HOME ON THE RANGE and CHICKEN LITTLE.

    1. Yep, Finn did direct prior to 'Home On The Range' elsewhere. I should've been more clear, mentioning he was a "Disney first-timer", good eye.