Closer in style and spirit to an anything-goes Looney Tunes romp than a standard-issue Mickey Mouse effort, “Home on the Range” is an engagingly rambunctious toon Western that likely will attract herds of family auds, if not multitudes of teens and tweeners, to megaplex corrals. Even if Disney production turns out to be, as many observers fear, one of studio’s last “traditionally animated” features, retro opus proves there’s still a lot of life in them thar cels.
Writer-directors Will Finn and John Sanford take an anthropomorphic approach to horse opera conventions, pitting bovine and equine white hats against two-legged bad guys.
Overall look and speed of pic indicate affectionate regard for Warner Bros. cartoons of 1940s and ’50s. (Cows, horses and humans traverse rugged frontier terrain in which Yosemite Sam and Wile E. Coyote would not be out of place.) “Home on the Range” may not be as deliriously edgy as many Warners classics — or as surreally hilarious as Disney’s recent, criminally under-rated “Teacher’s Pet” — but it works exceedingly well on its own terms as rollicking fun.
When her rancher owner goes bankrupt after his other cattle are rustled, Maggie (voiced by Roseanne Barr), a plump and prize-winning show cow, is sold to the Patch of Heaven dairy farm. Unfortunately, Maggie arrives just as Pearl (Carol Cooke), the ranch’s feisty owner, is served notice that Patch of Heaven soon will go up for auction if a $750 mortgage payment isn’t made.
The impending sale greatly distresses the animals long accustomed to easy living at Patch of Heaven (where, apparently, not even the pigs and chickens ever get turned into blue plate specials). Among the distraught critters: Mrs. Calloway (Judi Dench), a fussy British cow who’s not impressed by Maggie’s boisterous showboating; Grace (Jennifer Tilly), a spacey-sounding, New Agey-influenced cow who wants to sing in the worst way, and usually does; Jeb (Joe Flaherty), a cranky goat who never saw a tin can he didn’t covet; and Audrey (Estelle Harris), a high-strung chicken who proves to be plucky when crunch time arrives.
Eager to save her new home, Maggie proposes an audacious plan to capture Alameda Slim (Randy Quaid), a notorious rustler who just happens to have a $750 bounty on his head. (Is he the varmint responsible for the bankruptcy of Maggie’s ex-owner? Hey, does a cow moo in the barnyard?) Mrs. Calloway and Grace are pressed into service as extremely reluctant partners.
Filmmakers cleverly reference a dozen or so classic Westerns — including, after an apt adjustment of the widescreen frame, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Kids will be enchanted, but their parents will better appreciate the more inspired cliche spoofing.
Buck (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a familiar Western archetype: A prideful hotshot who dreams of doing derring-do while hunting dastardly outlaws. The big difference: the would-be hero is a horse. To be specific, he’s a stallion — which allows Finn and Sanford to take a none-too-subtle dig at a certain DreamWorks toon of recent vintage.
Normally the workaday steed of Sheriff Brown (Richard Riehle), chief lawman in a sleepy small town, Buck gets a crack at adventure when he’s commandeered by Rico (Charles Dennis), a steely-eyed, Clint Eastwooden bounty hunter. However, he evolves into a solo rival, then cunning collaborator, for the bovine vigilantes on Alameda Slim’s trail.
Well-cast vocal talents — including Steve Buscemi as Alameda Slim’s Peter Lorre-like silent partner — milk their roles for all they’re worth. Barr is sassy and brassy as Maggie, while Dench and Tilly complete the heroic trio with effectively contrasting character turns. Gooding hasn’t sounded so exuberant since he asked Tom Cruise to exhibit some cash. Former Texas governor Ann Richards lends her resonant twang to a briefly glimpsed saloon proprietor.
Fellow Texan Quaid is robustly villainous as Slim, a hefty heifer hijacker who hypnotizes cattle with his full-throated yodeling. (His vocals are seamlessly supplemented by real-life champ yodelers Randy Erwin and Kerry Christenson.) Character figures prominently in pic’s funniest and most spectacular production number, “Yodel-Adle-Eedle-Idle-Oo,” which plays like a rainbow-hued mix of Gene Autry, Busby Berkeley and animator Friz Freleng.
Other standouts in Western-flavored song score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater range from Texas swing of “Little Patch of Heaven” (warbled by k.d. lang) to “Will the Sun Shine Again,” plaintive ballad sweetly rendered by Bonnie Raitt. In contrast, “Anytime You Need a Friend” is pop-rock ear candy that, in this context, sounds jarringly inappropriate.
And speaking of inappropriate: Fleeting gag about oversized udders — delivered with deadpan panache by Barr, and quoted in “Home on the Range” trailers — may offend members of pic’s target audience. Anyone who rashly assumes the joke is too mild to cause offense has never had to deal with angry letters, phone calls or emails from incensed parents.