During the production of the film “Aladdin,” Howard Ashman died, and his clever, spunky lyrics died with him. It’s been more than a decade since Disney’s been able to come up with a partner for Alan Menken to compete with Ashman’s style. (Seriously, try actually listening to the words to the songs in “The Lion King.” While the music is catchy, some of the lyrics are downright amateurish, like “And where do we feature?/Just listen to teacher” in Scar’s number “Be Prepared” and almost all the lyrics in “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”)
Since Ashman’s untimely death, the deficit of decent music in Disney films has been so bad that the last few haven’t even had songs sung by the characters. Recently, when songs have appeared, they’ve been used as soundtrack background, like the Phil Collins pieces in “Brother Bear.” For a while, it looked like the Disney animated musical style had seen its last day.
However, with Glenn Slater, they may have found someone to revive this. Slater wrote the lyrics for the songs in “Home on the Range,” and they have the same creative, silly flavor for which Howard Ashman was known. It sets the tone for the whole film. While “Home on the Range” is your standard big-budget Disney animated film, it has a very punchy attitude – an attitude that I haven’t seen since “Lilo and Stitch.” It doesn’t take itself too seriously and has a lot of fun with the characters.
Maggie (Roseanne) is a diary cow who must be sold off because her owner’s herd was stolen by a cattle rustler named Alameda Slim. Maggie is sold to a small dairy farm called Patch of Heaven, where the animals live without fear of the slaughterhouse. However, when the bank demands back payments for the farm, Patch of Heaven is in danger of being sold. It now is up to Maggie and her bovine partners Mrs. Calloway (Judi Dench) and Grace (Jennifer Tilly) to track down Alameda Slim and secure the $750 bounty, which will pay off the debt for Patch of Heaven.
More than half of an animated film is who does the voices. Can you imagine the moose in “Brother Bear” without Bob and Doug MacKenzie behind them? Can you imagine “Aladdin” without Robin Williams as the Genie (and if you’ve seen the direct-to-video release of “The Return of Jafar,” you’ve experienced it first-hand)?
“Home on the Range” has an excellent voice cast, headed up by Hollywood maverick Roseanne. She plays a cow, which shows that the lady still has a sense of humor. Not many women with Roseanne’s rep would stand for this. I mean, can you imagine if Rosie O’Donnell was cast as a cow? I don’t see her ego letting it happen.
To balance out Roseanne’s crass and obnoxious nature is Judi Dench as Mrs. Calloway, another dairy cow. The forecast in Hell must be for snow tonight because Roseanne and Oscar-winner Dench are sharing the bill. Rounding out the trio of cows is Jennifer Tilly whose voice is normally so annoying it makes your ears bleed. However, as the part of Grace, she works. This is probably one of her funniest performances since “Bride of Chucky.” Other solid voice performances come from Cuba Gooding Jr. as Buck the horse and Randy Quaid as Alameda Slim.
Like “Lilo & Stitch,” the animation style for “Home on the Range” is a departure from the standard Disney flair. With a sharper, more abstract look, this new look gives a fresh feel to the film. Like “101 Dalmatians,” it has a style of its own that sets it apart from the rest of the competition. And while computers are used throughout the film to animate various sequences, it isn’t detract from the ink-and-paint segments.
The strength of “Home on the Range” is how much it throws at you at one time. It doesn’t wait for the audience to laugh, but moves from joke to joke fast enough that I’m sure I missed some things. And while the ensemble of animals at Patch of Heaven are funny and interesting, they’re not trying to compete as a side cast like a Pixar movie.
The story is simple, which helps make it work as a kid’s movie. There are plenty of adult-level jokes (including an obtuse reference to “Sling Blade” – I was the only one the theater who laughed at that one), which kept me entertained. “Home on the Range” has a wacky charm and a feeling like no other Disney film in recent years.
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