- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2004

Disney’s “Home on the Range,” a new sendup of the Wild West, has some fitful comic vitality and charm — even if it can’t hold a candle to the “Pecos Bill” segment of the studio’s late-‘40s anthology, “Melody Time.”

There’s amusing potential in the far-fetched premise of “Range,” which envisions a trio of heifers, voiced by Roseanne Barr, Judi Dench and Jennifer Tilly, bonding to save a dairy farm, fondly nicknamed Patch of Heaven, from foreclosure within a matter of days.

Miss Barr’s Maggie is a newcomer, the last prize possession of a rancher whose herd vanished. Miss Dench’s eminently respectable Mrs. Calloway and Miss Tilly’s airheaded Grace feel loyalties of long-standing to the proprietor of Heaven, a farm widow called Pearl (Carole Cook).

Maggie, wiser in the ways of commerce, is alert to the possibilities in a reward notice for a notorious rustler, Alameda Slim. The $750 price on his head is identical to the lien on Pearl’s property. Coincidentally, the greedy Slim, in disguise, is planning to make the high bid for Patch of Heaven. Infiltrating his gang proves inadvertently easy, since Slim, dubbed by Randy Quaid, is also a yodeling Pied Piper whose voice lures livestock into his clutches.

The cows are abetted, upon locating Slim’s hideaway, by a glory-hungry horse called Buck (Cuba Gooding Jr. on the soundtrack). Young and impressionable, Buck deems it an honor when he’s acquired by a whispering bounty hunter, the mercenary Rico (Charles Dennis mimicking Clint Eastwood at his most raspy and ominously soft-spoken).

Half a dozen people had a hand in writing the story, an overflow that may account for the intermittently absent-minded script. For example, there are climactic chase sequences, one set in a mine shaft and another on a runaway train across the Badlands, that seem to be huffing and puffing at cross-purposes. Neither plays a decisive role in disarming Slim, ultimately reserved for a pummeling by Pearl’s barnyard critters. One gets the impression that different animation units are competing for the same patch of spectacle, rather than cooperating in a seamless continuity.

Alan Menken, the composer for “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “Pocahontas,” returns to the Disney animation family with a new lyricist, Glenn Slater, and their contributions are reliably upbeat. One ballad, “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again,” entrusted to Bonnie Raitt, ought to serve as a warning to the filmmakers, who let the movie drift into a prolonged stretch of underillumination while threatening the cows with a thunderstorm and engulfment in flash floods.

The prevailing illustrative style is perilously schematic, shorn of the round detailing and the rich color saturation that distinguished the Disney look at the time of “Pecos Bill.” The skimpy effect acquires a somnolent dimension in darkened settings.

I suspect the song score will outlast the slapstick imagery, but if frisky and silly is what you crave in a new animated feature, then “Home on the Range” should suffice.


TITLE: “Home on the Range”

RATING: PG (Fleeting comic vulgarity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Will Finn and John Sanford. Original score by Alan Menken. Original songs by Mr. Menken and Glenn Slater. Art direction by David Cutler. Supervising animators: Chris Buck, Duncan Marjoribanks, Mark Henn, Michael Surrey, Dale Baer, Russ Edmonds, Sandro Lucio Cleuzo, Bruce W. Smith, James Lopez, Shawn Keller and Mark Pudleiner

RUNNING TIME: 76 minutes


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