Greg Singer reviews Disneys traditional cartoon feature, Home on the Range, and reminisces about a West that never was what it used to be.
Home on the Range is energetic, colorful and one last hurrah for Disneys traditional feature animation unit.
Well, for the foreseeable future, anyway.
Though people always find something to complain about, Home on the Range is a good movie. Dont let anyone tell you differently. Its beautiful art direction, fluid animation and playful voice performances all lend themselves to uncomplicated entertainment. The opening scene, with its jaunty title song, hearkens back to an earlier era, not only when spittoons were all the rage, but when cartoons didnt take themselves too seriously.
For those indignant, pouting few sitting cross-armed in their darkened living rooms, whose heroic stubbornness refuses to patronize the Mouse House, here is a quick, harmless overview of the story:
An outlaw named Alameda Slim (Randy Quaid) has been mysteriously snatching up cattle from the local territory. Meanwhile, a real estate baron named Yancy ODell, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Alameda Slim (wink, wink), has been laughing all the way to the bank, and buying up the areas lands when they are forced to foreclose. One last dairy farm, called Patch of Heaven, is soon to be on the banks auction block, unless the kindly owner Pearl (Carole Cook) can come up with $750 to cover the loans. The animal residents of Patch of Heaven set out to rustle up some reward money, and thereby save the farm, in bringing Alameda Slim to justice.
In particular, our heroes are three cows: bold, brash Maggie (Roseanne Barr); priggish, practical Mrs. Caloway (Judi Dench); and holistic, tone-deaf Grace (Jennifer Tilly). Like the Charlies Angels of the farm world, they are bovine bounty hunters with a lot of heart, if not a lot of luck.
Not to ruin the movie for anyone, but theres a shaman-like, one-legged jack rabbit thrown into the fray, as well as a buffalo who looks vaguely like the titular Beast in that other beautiful movie back in the days when Oscar nods for animation were largely reserved for a quick snooze during the short film category.
Oh yeah, there is also an endearingly ebullient sheriffs horse named Buck (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). He is looking to prove his mettle by teaming up with a shadowy vigilante named Rico who is also on the trail of Slim.
This is the part where Ill leave off with the story, because theres not much sense in recapitulating the whole darn thing when you can much more enjoy the movie by seeing it. Really, the entire affair is fairly painless fun.
In fact, if the audience I previewed the movie with is any gauge, it appeals to children both young and old (you know who you are). While the kiddies can chuckle along with some gratuitous belching, the grownups can appreciate the visual designs and wordplay. In one scene, when the horse, Buck, is referred to as Stallion of the Cimoron, well, you know, animators are cool like that. Theres nothing like a good ribbing among professionals.
And yes, as mentioned, there are songs involved cowboy choruses composed by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater (the former of which you may remember from such indie no-names as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin). Technically speaking, the movie is a musical hybrid. While the characters mercifully break into song only twice, the rest of the music is under the action. One of the songs is actually a yodeling number, which, according to Alameda Slim, shouldnt even be considered singing, anyway. Yodeling is an art!
With k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, Tim McGraw, and The Beu Sisters each contributing their vocals to the soundtrack, who would argue? Western is as western does.
Straight from the Horses Mouth
The idea to do a western goes back to 1998, six short years ago, when the Disney development team was sweating bullets over which direction to take the story. An early version of the movie was about a calf that wanted to be more like the horses that led the herd.
Producer Alice Dewey Goldstone (Hercules, The Lion King) explains, Initially, we had a movie that was sort of a coming-of-age story. It was very dear, and I think we could have made it and done okay with it. But I think, honestly, it felt very familiar. We really wanted a comedy, we didnt necessarily want something so earnest and sweet.
So, in 1999, the story folks corralled together to salvage some of the characters and backgrounds already developed, and story artist Michael LaBash pitched the idea of three dairy cows becoming bounty hunters to save their farm. Other story artists and writers honed the new idea, including Sam Levine, Mark Kennedy, Robert Lence and Shirley Pierce, and, in October 2000, directors Will Finn and John Sanford jumped on the moving train of production to shape the final story.
Finn, who has been in the biz for 25 years animating on such films as Beauty & the Beast and The Secret of NIMH, recalls, Because there had been some hitches along the way in developing the story, when we took it on, they said you can basically do anything you want with the premise, but youre going to be in production from the get-go. We spent half the day creating stuff for the artists to do, then the other half of the day reviewing what they were doing. With everything coming together in bits and pieces, we were pretty bold with the story and with the arcs of the characters.
With a basic framework to improvise and expand upon, Sanford (who helped with story development for Mulan and Lilo & Stitch) encouraged the artists to play with the initial outline. A lot of the story was therefore hashed out directly on the storyboards. He says, You get the best work that way. You get the best of what the artists can bring to it. Then they are thinking visually. Animation should be more visual than talk. If we give them an outline, then theyll bring back the most entertaining stuff.
Having three protagonists was a bit tricky, in distinguishing one cow from another and making sure they were complementary personalities. Goldstone says, Not only did the visuals help us, with their clear silhouettes and colors, and their face shapes are all vastly different from one another but of course our casting is pretty distinctive, and thats really helped us. Once we started incorporating the voice recordings into the storyboards, we realized we had so much material that we could just get rid of, because we no longer needed to set up their personality or understand their background. We had these great, talented actors to do that work for us.
Buck and Slim both have standout performances, but they were two of the characters that needed a lot of work. Instead of being the best bounty hunting horse in the West, Buck became an untried, hopeful character who wanted to be a hero but never had a shot. Of Cuba Gooding, Jr.s role, Goldstone says, Heres an animal whos stuck in a job, hes morose, he doesnt want to be a civil servant... he wants more adventure. You could sort of have a whiny, depressing character. But Cuba was the one who helped us to see how energetic you could make that frustration.
Slim himself went through at least four transformations as a presidential candidate, as a goldminer, etc. before the story team settled on a cattle rustling land baron. Composer Alan Menken remembers that, at one point, there was a ghost brigade of rustlers stealing cattle. When Menken suggested Alameda Slim could hypnotize and abscond with the herd via his yodeling talents, the idea seemed a natural fit and it was incorporated into the story.
From a writing standpoint, it was very difficult, says Goldstone. When I look at the movie now, it seems so simple and streamlined and elegant, but it wasnt an easy plot to get to.
Finn explains, Our third act was rewritten a couple of times over the years, as well as great big sections of the second act, and when we finally got the second half of the movie working right, then we came back and asked, can we rewrite the first ten minutes of the movie and do that over? They said yes, and it was really kind of evolving the whole time. The crew was terrific, and they kept the pace with us. We wound up discarding a lot of work, but the important thing is, whats right for the movie. Even going back to Snow White, they threw out big chunks of the movie, because, while some scenes were fine and played as stand-alone pieces, they interrupted the direct flow of the story.
Sanford adds, The Bugs Bunny cartoons are a great example of the kind of animation we wanted to make. As kids, you laugh at all the visual stuff. And when you grow up, you discover how funny the dialogue is, and how funny a lot of the other things are. You can enjoy them as a five-year-old and as a 35-year-old. Thats kind of what we were thinking about, that same spirit of cartoon.
We were very committed to making something that wasnt as serious as a lot of the previous animated movies, and wasnt trying to be a live-action movie, or a CG movie, says Finn. We thought, lets just embrace what weve got. And hopefully that will be recognized by the audience.
Goldstone says, I think the crew enjoyed making this movie. Theyre fun characters to draw; I heard that a lot, especially from cleanup. We had Mark Henn, Chris Buck, Duncan Marjoribanks, Dale Baer seasoned professionals who have so many characters behind them, and relationships with one another. The respect among them was amazing. You can feel that on the screen. There was just a confidence in the way it was animated.
The Disney Brand
If nothing else, Home on the Range is purdy to look at. Even while the movie covers territory that is well trod and well grazed, the characters bear the unmistakable mark of the Disney brand. With enough visual and verbal interest to keep both children and adults awake, that probably aint such a bad thing.
Joe Moshier, who oversaw the character designs, drew inspiration from the work of legendary animator Milt Kahl, and from such popular childrens book illustrators as Martin and Alice Provensen, and Aurelius Battaglia. Moshier also gives kudos to animator Sandro Cleuzo for helping to create the turnaround model sheets, and Christopher Ure for his early design work on the cows.
Moshier says, Its very tough coming up with three different versions of the same animal. And I cant think of a harder animal to caricature than a cow. Theyre very jowly, which was one aspect we jumped on right away. There was that boxy, jowly nature with the sort of high-set eyes and overhanging muzzle. Chris Ure had established the shape language early on according to their personalities. Mrs. Caloway was very boxy, Grace had a triangular silhouette, and there was a roundness to Maggie. We didnt want them to look like realistic cows. Knowing that this was a whimsical, wacky take on a western, we were allowed to really push the shapes of the characters.
Chris Buck, Duncan Marjoribanks and Mark Henn were the trio of top talents who guided the performances for the three different cow characters. Buck, a veteran Disney animator who also served as co-director of Tarzan, was responsible for overseeing Maggie. Marjoribanks, who animated Sebastian the crab in The Little Mermaid, the evil poacher McLeach in The Rescuers Down Under, and the gold-loving Governor Ratcliffe in Pochantas, was pulling duty this time around for Mrs. Caloway. And Henn, who has given life to such Disney characters as Ariel, Belle, Princess Jasmine, adult Simba, and Mulan, among others, was supervising the character of Grace. Henn is such a prolific animator, he also helped to supervise two other characters in the movie: the sheriffs dog, Rusty, and the shifty cattle broker Wesley (Steve Buscemi).
Buck says, In real life, cows dont really do a heck of a lot. We went to a local dairy farm and spent time observing hundreds of cows. I thought I was going to see all these great cow motions, but all they did was stand and eat and then stand and eat some more. We had to push our characters to run and jump and do things that cows dont normally do. The dairy farm visit did allow us to see the subtleties of the animals. Looking at their faces, cows have very soulful eyes. Theyre very expressive with their tails and the way they swish them back and forth.
Henn says, All three of the cows in our film are visually different from each other. Grace was always a younger cow, and a little more slender. Shes more deer-like in a lot of ways, with longer legs. Mechanically, we put in just enough anatomy to make her plausible and believable.
Mike Surrey, who worked on Timon in The Lion King and Clopin in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was in charge of the horse Buck. Buck is like a well trained athlete that never really gets to play in the game. He just really wants to be out there trying to do something, and he gets his big opportunity when hes picked up to help capture Slim. Drawing a horse, in general, was pretty intimidating because their head is so removed from their body. It can just be overwhelming figuring out how its all going to work together. Luckily Buck is pretty cartoony, and we didnt have to get too bogged down with the realism of how a horse moves and what they can and cannot do.
Among the other top-notch animated performances: supervising animator Sandro Cleuzo worked on Sheriff Brown and the cantankerous, can-hoarding goat, Jeb; Bruce Smith and Mark Henn shared responsibility for the kindly farm owner, Pearl; Shawn Keller oversaw the antics of the one-legged rabbit, Lucky Jack; and Russ Edmonds was in charge of Rico, the Willies (nephews of Alameda Slim), and some of the other horse characters.
Veteran Dale Baer, whose association with Disney spans over 30 years, was assigned to animate Alameda Slim. Having worked on films as far back as Robin Hood, Baers credits include supervision of Yzma in The Emperors New Groove and some major scenes in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He says, Watching Randy [Quaid] at the recording sessions was amazing. He would just transform himself into the character with his gestures and expressions. He would actually physically act things out while he was reading his lines. I loved everything he did and ideas would start popping into my head immediately. He was really feeling the character and, watching him on the tapes, you knew exactly what Slim would do. My favorite part of the film is the yodeling sequence. It was fun to animate a character of Slims stature moving around so actively and gracefully. It set the tone of the character for the rest of the film. There were no limits to what he could do.
Directors Finn and Sanford wanted Slims hypnotic soliloquy, the song Yodel-Adle-Eedle-Idle-Oo, to be one of the most colorful sequences in the movie; to take its place along such other Disney moments as Pink Elephants on Parade from Dumbo, and Evrybody Wants to Be a Cat in The Aristocats.
Lyricist Glenn Slater comments, Songs are really a way of telling the story; a way of amplifying emotion and capturing character. This was a very difficult song to write because its the first time we meet Alameda Slim and we had to find a way to establish the mechanism of how his yodeling trick works, while doing it in a song that was also a big production number. Another thing I wanted to do with this song was to tap into that Disney tradition of nonsense word songs, like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious or Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.
Two expert, champion yodelers (Randy Erwin, Kerry Christenson) were blended with Randy Quaids own singing. Slater says, What made recording this song such a complicated process was matching Randys singing voice to the voices of two incredible yodelers. When Alameda Slim does his thing, what youre hearing is Randys consonants and the yodelers vowels spliced together in such a way that it sounds like a seamless performance.
Background supervisor Cristy Maltese Lynch talks about the psychedelic yodeling scene: We went kind of wild in that sequence because we wanted the audience to experience what the cows were feeling. They dont know whats going on. All this weird stuff is happening. Theyre seeing the world through different eyes and theyre hearing music that is taking them away. They have no control over whats happening.
When Lynch first brought her background team together, she asked them to approach their paintings like a crafts project. She says, I asked them to remember back to when they were in kindergarten, and they would cut colored paper, and glue macaroni and beans and sequins onto it. That was the approach we wanted, as opposed to a rendered painting. Our film is very graphic and textural. The backgrounds are not illustrations, or beautiful landscape paintings in oil, but something closer to a crafts project.
Using a technique called faceting, the artists would lay down a flat plain of color, and then go back over that with other angular areas of color. Pieces of textured watercolor paper or differently-colored fabric might be layered on top of a painted area. This hard-edge faceting provided a unique, handcrafted quality for the skies, mountains and other background. When composited with the characters, it created an illusion of perspective with visible ruts, grains and textures.
In general, in the western film genre, the color palette tends to be brown and earth tone to highlight the dusty terrain. However, the bright colors in Home on the Range emphasize the intended joy and warmth of the movie. Art director David Cutler explains, A great example of that is the frontier town where we have buildings that are purple, yellow and blue. We could have made the film more monochromatic, but we went for a more colorful and playful look. We were influenced a lot by the color stylist Mary Blair who had such a big impact on Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland.
Do Not Ask For Whom the Cow Bell Tolls
For the last seventy-five years, Disney has helped to pioneer the business and artform of animation. Which is why its so strange that during Home on the Range as a tumbleweed rolls by; as the song swells for Will the Sun Ever Shine Again? one is reminded of the present-day concerns of animation artists.
For all the talk of production costs and profit margins, what udder madness has lead to the recent restructuring of Disneys feature animation unit? With Disneys stable of artists disbanded to the corners of the globe, where will the traditional talent be nurtured and preserved?
Randy Quaid, voice of the villainous Alameda Slim, says, It is kind of a dubious honor, or distinction, to be in possibly one of the final hand-drawn films. Specifically, he is referring to domestically made Disney animated features. Quaid continues, It is a shame, because those are the kinds of animated movies I grew up on, where theyre hand-painted and theyre beautiful. Theyre really original works of art.
Producer Alice Dewey Goldstone adds, I think every industry is faced with technology changes these days, and animation is just one of many. Its a process were going to go through. Ive talked with a lot of directors, and from their standpoint, computer innovations give them a lot more tools to work with, and most directors are really excited about it. I think the medium is going to dictate which way we go with 2D and 3D, and it seems to me, on the face of it, less about the cost [of making these movies] than about the appetite right now.
Is Home on the Range good enough to save the traditional, hand-drawn form of animation? In my opinion, that is not a burden the movie needs to carry. Home on the Range offers the kind of animation one is happy to see more than once, and that is its own reward.
We could talk about it til the cows come home. To animate is human; to ruminate, bovine. Knowing full well that other studios are saddling up for their own independent productions, its clear that the news of traditional animations demise has been greatly exaggerated. Hand-drawn animated movies have not lost their touch. They have merely lost their turn.
Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles.