There’s a distinctly middle-of-the-road, unexceptional quality to this new Disney animated flick. “Home on the Range” moves along reasonably well, and it features a boatload of animal characters (as well as a few human ones) that are carefully designed to delight the kiddies while offering occasional inside jokes and cinematic references to appeal to their parents. (One character, for example, speaks in Clint Eastwood’s voice and delivers a final line derived from Edward G. Robinson’s in “Little Caesar.” There’s also, I’m told, a “Seinfeld” reference in one of the songs.) Interspersed with the slapstick routines and obligatory exposition are song-and-dance routines (by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, and sung by the likes of k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt and Tim McGraw) that are rambunctious if not particularly memorable. The result is at best an okay time-killer, but hardly a classic.
The story is, as you’d except of a cartoon, whatever the length, essentially a chase. The heroines are three cows–brassy Maggie (Roseanne Barr), prim and proper Mrs. Caloway (Judi Dench) and scatterbrain Grace (Jennifer Tilly)–who mosey on off into the desert to capture the notorious cattle rustler Alameda Slim (Randy Quaid) and win a $750 reward that will pay off the bank note on the farm where they reside and stave off foreclosure. The place, called Patch of Heaven, is owned by a sweet old lady and home to plenty of other critters, too–an irascible goat, a pig and three piglets, a duck, a hen and some adorable chicks. Our three bovine heroines hope for some help from the sheriff’s adventure-seeking horse Buck (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), but he instead links up with a bounty hunter named Rico (Charles Dennis), so the cows are on their own. It would be pointless to go into details about what happens from this point, but it involves a hypnotic yodel (interpret that as best you can), a diminutive money-man (Steve Buscemi), a formidable buffalo, three dopey sidekicks for Slim, a masquerade, and a runaway train.
As so often happens in live-action comedies nowadays, the best things about “Home on the Range” tend to be some of the secondary elements rather than the primary ones. Maggie, Mrs. Caloway and Grace are, to be frank, rather boring, and as Disney villains go Slim is a pretty pallid sort. Buck is no great shakes, either; he’s infected by the manic quality that Gooding exhibits in his live-action roles, and can’t seem to shake even in a voice-only one. On the other hand, Dennis’ Eastwood imitation as Rico has its moments (he even rather looks like “The Man With No Name”), and Slim’s three boobish blond nephews (all voiced by Sam J. Levine) have their moments of stooge-like fun. So does Joe Flaherty’s grumpy goat, Jeb. Buscemi’s seedy money-man, on the other hand, is pretty much a bust. From a visual standpoint this is hardly one of Disney’s more imaginative recent efforts, but it’s certainly adequate.
To this reviewer, “Home on the Range” seems like the sort of Disney product that would be more at home on the tube or the video shelf than the big screen. But I must admit my track record in judging such matters is not strong. After all, I thought “Treasure Planet” a treat that should do well (it tanked) and “Teacher’s Pet” a charmingly quirky piece (it bombed, too), but “Brother Bear” a strained, wimpy bit of New Age guff that should have faded quickly (it was a smash). So perhaps a workmanlike but uninspired riff on old westerns like this will have greater attraction than I expect.