2 stars (out of 4)
Can you make an epic Western - even a cartoon comedy Western with tongue firmly in cheek - work for audiences when your central characters aren't gunfighters and cowboys but instead gunfighters and cows?
Maybe. But not this time.
"Home on the Range," the new Walt Disney cartoon feature, is a big Western with six good Alan Menken songs (sung by Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang, Tim McGraw and others), lots of funny animals, expensive animation and star voice actors (Roseanne Barr, Judi Dench and Cuba Gooding Jr.), along with a central premise that struck me as ridiculous.
Writer-directors Will Finn and John Sanford have dreamed up an engaging cartoon West, full of vast spaces drawn in the sharp-angled, flat manner of '50s-'60s studio cartoons. But, hoping for whimsy, they've turned the action over to cartoon cows Maggie (Barr), Mrs. Caloway (Dench) and Grace (Jennifer Tilly) - an idea that just doesn't work.
They've also come up with a somewhat appealing plot. The feisty farm animals belonging to sweet old Pearl (Carole Cook) take drastic action when her property is shoved toward auction and toward a likely purchase by Alameda Slim (Randy Quaid), a ruthless land baron who doubles as the masked, yodeling rustler who's been stealing livestock and creating bankruptcies all over the West.
Pearl's barnyard entourage includes a can-craving old goat named Jeb (Joe Flaherty), Audrey the chicken (Estelle Harris), Ollie the pig (Charlie Dell) and others. But the heroines are the three cows - extroverted Happy Heifer award winner Maggie, imperious aristo-cow Mrs. Caloway and faithful sidekick Grace - who plan to save the farm by catching Slim and collecting the bounty.
Slim is also being pursued by lean, mean, Eastwood-style bounty hunter Rico (Charles Dennis) and ambitious horse Buck (Cuba Gooding Jr.). But his primary antagonists, through cattle drives, train wrecks and flash floods, are those three cows, and they create an insoluble problem. Cows, or at least these cows, slow a movie down.
That's not all that slows down "Home." Barr's Maggie is too rough and raspy-voiced. Dench's Mrs. Caloway is crisply patrician, but Tilly's Grace is too lightweight. The jokes aren't fresh. The backgrounds, in the age of Pixar, often seem too minimalist.
Most of all, putting cows at the center of a fast-moving comedy cartoon seems perverse. In cartoons, lions leap, horses race, fish dart, mice skitter. But cows, better as secondary characters, just waddle along, here usurping a form usually dominated by cats, mice, road runners, wascally wabbits, lion kings and flying elephants.
There's a good reason why speedy animals are mostly at the center of cartoons. Cartoon comedies of this kind depend on speed. And if they can't have speed, they need fullness and richness. Indeed, the whole style Finn and Sanford use here - reminiscent of Chuck Jones' classic Road Runners, and Disney's own 1956 Western short, "A Cowboy Needs a Horse" - was designed for headlong pace.
Satirizing the movie Western can make for a great cartoon, as it does in Jiri Trnka's brilliant 1949 Czech short "Song of the Prairie," a puppet version of "Stagecoach." But "Home" isn't good satire or good slapstick. It does have those lyrical, catchy Menken tunes, and the film perks up whenever Raitt or lang sing one of them. But much of this movie is deadly. "Home" keeps milking the same gags and throwing the same bull, and after a while you feel cowed watching it.
"Home on the Range"
Directed and written by Will Finn, John Sanford; story by Finn, Sanford, Michael LaBash, Sam Levine, Mark Kennedy, Robert Lence; edited by H. Lee Peterson; art directed by David Cutler; music by Alan Menken; songs by Menken, Glenn Slater; produced by Alice Dewey Goldstone. A Walt Disney Pictures release; opens Friday, April 2. Running time: 1:16. MPAA rating: PG (brief mild rude humor).
Maggie - Roseanne Barr
Mrs. Caloway - Judi Dench
Grace/Wesley/Rusty - Jennifer Tilly
Buck - Cuba Gooding Jr.
Slim/Junior - Randy Quaid
Rico - Charles Dennis
Jeb the Goat - Joe Flaherty