Officially, “Home on the Range” is designated a Disney animated feature like “Lion King” and “Pocahontas,” but what it really is is an unapologetic cartoon, a harum-scarum endeavor that’s so comically frantic it wears you out as much as it entertains.
While other animated features have yearned for dignity and stature, this one resembles an extended version of Saturday morning foolishness, with so many Chuck Jones-inspired pratfalls an appearance by Wile E. Coyote (if he wasn’t under contractual obligation elsewhere) wouldn’t be out of place.
While having a loose and lively feature is a nice change of pace, “Home on the Range” is much more ordinary than Disney’s last attempt at being off the wall, the wonderful “Lilo & Stitch.” This film throws so much at you so fast it hopes you won’t notice that the quality of the material isn’t particularly impressive.
It’s ironic that the stars of this manic endeavor happen to be cows.
As Disney veteran Chris Buck, the supervising animator on the Roseanne Barr-voiced Maggie explained, “In real life, cows don’t really do a heck of a lot. We went to a local dairy farm and spent time observing hundreds of cows.... All they did was stand and eat and then stand and eat some more.”
This has not stopped debuting writer-directors Will Finn and John Sanford from constructing a story where cows do everything from driving a train to saving the day, all in a traditional old West setting where characters say “dag nab it” and a buffalo can serve as a bouncer.
The starting point for all of this is Patch of Heaven dairy farm, where feisty pigs torment a goatish old goat and the regal cow they call Mrs. Caloway (Judi Dench) tries to teach the finer points of bovine life to space cadet Grace (Jennifer Tilly), who’s fond of saying, “It’s an organic problem and there should be a holistic solution.”
Into this Eden come a pair of problems. Maggie, a former show cow who was the original Happy Heifer, arrives and threatens Mrs. C’s hegemony. Worse still, the sheriff shows up and says the place will have to be sold and the animals dispersed unless the owner can come up with $750. Cash.
Under the prodding of Maggie, the three cows head into the nearby town of Chugwater to see what the fundraising prospects are. Noticing a wanted poster for the notorious rustler Alameda Slim (Randy Quaid) that just happens to be for $750, the cows decide on the spot that being bounty hunters will solve their problems.
Standing in their way is a real bounty hunter, the fierce Rico (Charles Dennis), as well as a delusional, “legend-in-his-own-mind” horse named Buck (Cuba Gooding Jr.) who fancies himself a crime fighter and wants to capture the rustler on his own. And then there’s the prowess of Slim himself, a bad man whose ability to yodel (vocals supplied by “world champions” Randy Erwin and Kerry Christenson) puts cows in a trance.
All this is innocuous enough and even fitfully amusing, though the belching jokes and slight sexual innuendo that earned the film a PG rating for “brief, mild, rude humor” could have been eliminated at no cost to the proceedings.
“Home on the Range” also has a new Alan Menken score with lyrics by Glenn Slater that attracted singers k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, Tim McGraw and the Beau Sisters. And someone even persuaded former Texas Gov. Ann Richards to add her voice to the character of a saloon-keeper named Annie.
Still, it is difficult to work up any great enthusiastic for this film.
“Home on the Range” may be acceptable on reflection, but 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. Cartoons used to end after but a few minutes, and maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea.
‘Home on the Range’
MPAA rating: PG for brief mild rude humor.
Times guidelines: Bodily function humor and some mild sexual innuendo.
Judi Dench...Mrs. Caloway
Cuba Gooding Jr....Buck
Randy Quaid...Alameda Slim
Released by Walt Disney Pictures. Directors Will Finn and John Sanford. Producer Alice Dewey Goldstone. Screenplay Will Finn and John Sanford. Editor H. Lee Peterson. Music Alan Menken. Art director David Cutler. Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes. In general release.