Home on the Range

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Disney started using “name” actors for key roles in its animated films as early as 1955, with Peggy Lee taking the lead in “Lady and the Tramp.” But it wasn’t until the late ’60s that the idea of pairing recognizable voices with animated characters who were reminiscent of them really began to take hold. That’s when you had swing singer Louis Prima as swingin’ King Louie in “The Jungle Book” (1967), snobby Eva Gabor playing a snooty cat in “The Aristocats” (1970), and Sir Peter Ustinov as the vain, childish Prince John in “Robin Hood” (1973).

It only got better in the modern era. Who better to play a motherly teapot than Angela Lansbury? Who could bring a wise-cracking, improvising genie to life more thoroughly than Robin Williams? Jeremy Irons as a scheming, Shakespearean lion? Danny DeVito as a goat-man? You can almost see the writers and directors giggling with glee as they indulge in the “Who should play…?” game.

Which brings us to “Home on the Range,” a sly and witty new animated film that brims with perfect casting. When a part is written for a sassy, no-nonsense cow, who comes to mind more immediately than Roseanne Barr? A short, oily underworld figure is obviously Steve Buscemi, Patrick Warburton (who played Kronk in “The Emperor’s New Groove”) should clearly play a deadpan horse, and if anyone other than the doll-voiced Jennifer Tilly is meant to portray a touch-feely, New-Age cow, then I have not heard that person speak. Furthermore, I have to assume Cuba Gooding Jr. was chosen for the part of the sheriff’s over-eager horse on the basis of his Oscar acceptance speech alone.

The story is set in the Old West, with a prize-winning cow named Maggie (Barr) the lone survivor of a cattle-rustling perpetrated by yodeling Alameda Slim (Randy Quaid) and the Willy Brothers gang, a trio of dim-witted lookalikes. Her owner, bereft of income with the cows gone, must give Maggie away to a blissful dairy farm called Patch of Heaven, where lead cow Mrs. Calloway (Judi Dench — perfect!) does not approve of extroverted “show cows” like Maggie.

Maggie, Mrs. Calloway and fellow bovine Grace (Tilly) must work together, however, when Patch of Heaven is threatened with foreclosure. If they can capture Alameda Slim, they’ll get $750 in reward money, and that’s just the amount needed to save the farm.

Co-written and co-directed by animation veterans Will Finn and John Sanford, the movie takes every Western-flick cliché it can find and adapts it to animals, from the salty chuck-wagon chef (who’s now a rabbit) to the Main Street shoot-out (which now involves an entire menagerie). Some of the jokes fail, but most of them work, enabled by enthusiastic performances from the voice talent. (Some of the jokes, like the reference to James Cagney’s “Little Caesar,” only grownups will get.)

It comes in at a tight, breezy 76 minutes, without extraneous plotting or diversions. The songs, by Glenn Slater and Alan Menken and sung by the likes of k.d. lang and Bonnie Raitt, are appropriately clever, if not outstanding.

This is, rather famously, Disney’s last hand-drawn animated feature, the facility having been shut down after this one was finished. I suppose you can’t blame them when the last few have been financial disappointments. But it’s frustrating to note that if all the films had been as funny, simple and pleasant as this one is, maybe they’d have done better.

B+ (1 hr., 16 min.; PG, for one line: "Yeah, they're real. Quit starin'," spoken by Maggie in reference to her udders.)

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