DEBATE DAY: Home on the Range is The Worst Hand-drawn Disney Movie

It’s Debate Day! This week we’re arguing over the worst hand–drawn movie in the Disney canon. To see Aaron’s sketchy and poorly-conceived opinion, tickle this link: Dumbo is the Worst Hand-Animated Disney Movie. To see my opinion (the correct opinion), read on!

This week we’re wading into a river of feces once more to dredge up the worst possible Disney movie. This was sort of hard because most Disney movies range from decent to great. There are scant few that I dislike. With that said, there are definitely a few stinkers. I almost picked Atlantis: The Lost Empire, not just to spite Aaron, but because it’s honestly pretty stupid. Seriously, how did the Atlanteans forget their own written language? Why is James Garner so obviously evil? But I digress. Atlantis may be silly, but it has its moments. No, the truly stupidest Disney movie is the one that nearly killed hand-drawn animation forever: Home on the Range.

Yep.

Yep.

There’s so much wrong with this 2004 movie that it’s hard to even know where to start. So I’ll start with what doesn’t suck: the animation. Disney can always be counted on for top-notch animation, and this movie is no different. Honestly, though, that’s about where the praise stops.

Everything else in this movie is either bland and forgettable or aggressively bad, and it’s hard to decide which is worse. From the get-go we’re introduced to a slew of flat characters who have no development. There’s sassy cow (Roseanne Barr), ditzy cow (Jennifer Tilly), and stuck-up cow (Judi Dench), our main trio. They’re all painted broadly, and we don’t spend any time learning about their personal histories or what makes them tick. In short, we have no reason to care about them.

Sassy cow, voiced by Roseanne Barr, comes the closest to being a complete character. She’s a former show cow whose owner has been forced to sell her to an idyllic farm called Slice of Heaven. And that’s it. Compare this to classic Disney heroes like Aladdin, Simba, or even stupid Milo (from stupid Atlantis) who have issues to work out that we spend a lot of the first act learning about. There’s no inner conflict in Home on the Range, and thus no tension.

The external conflict has to do with a mustache-twirling cattle thief named Alameda Slim (Randy Quaid) who plans to sell his stolen cows and use the money to buy up all the nearby land under an alias. This plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. For one thing, his disguise is basically just a pair of glasses, and for another thing, why the hell does he care about buying farmland if he can steal cows and make a ton of money with very little trouble? But hey, he’s a cartoon villain, I’ve seen stupider motivations (James Garner’s Commander Rourke comes to mind. Stupid Atlantis).

So the cow trio decides to track down Slim and bring him to justice to get the reward money and save the farm, which the kindly owner can’t afford to keep. This is a bog-standard cookie-cutter plot with no originality or potential for character development. There’s nothing exciting or heartwarming here; just mountains of stupid barnyard puns. We don’t care about the cows’ quest to save the farm because we’re never made to care about the farm at all. There’s a half-assed exposition song at the beginning extolling the virtues of simple farm life, but that’s about it. Compare this to say, The Aristocats, where we spend a lot of time getting to know the cats and their lifestyle (notably not through a single lazy song) before it gets taken away. Home on the Range tells rather than shows, an amateurish blunder.

Then things get weird. I’m just gonna leave this video here, you watch it and tell me what you think.

I think I’m having a stroke, guys. There’s no way this can be real life. I like trippy animation as much as the next guy, but what in the seven hells is going on here? He seduces the cows with irresistible yodeling? How? On what planet does this make sense? And why, in a Disney movie for kids, are we suddenly treated to a psychedelic mindfuck? I haven’t seen such a bizarre tonal shift since “Pink Elephants on Parade,” but this one is worse because it’s a key plot device that makes no sense.

Okay, so the songs themselves aren’t really that bad, and I actually like one, “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again,” pretty well. The problem is that most of the songs are pointless. The characters don’t even sing the bulk of them. Alan Menken wrote the score, and some good artists like k. d. lang and Bonnie Raitt did some singing, but they all feel short and unnecessary.

There are some minor characters I haven’t mentioned so far, like Buck the wanna-be hero horse (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), Wesley the shady cattle buyer (Steve Buscemi), Pearl the kindly farm owner, and Rico the bounty hunter. But these characters aren’t really even worth mentioning, because like everyone else in this movie, they’re flat and have basically no characterization. Even the weak supporting cast from stupid Atlantis had more development.

Home on the Range’s real crime is nearly getting Disney to quit hand-drawn animation forever. It’s since made The Princess and the Frog, but I get the sense that it’s still stinging from how poorly Home on the Range performed at the box office. But rather than recognize the problem as the obviously-weak script, Disney decided in its infinite wisdom that hand-drawn animation itself was the culprit. Disney had made box office bombs before, like The Black Cauldron or Fantasia, but those had ambition and creative zeal (even if it was misguided in the former case). Home on the Range is utterly (har har) lacking in creativity or inspiration, and that’s why it failed to strike a chord with audiences or critics. It really is the ultimate low-point in the Disney animated canon: the moment when Disney completely gave up on making art and said “fuck it, let’s just crank out schlock for a quick buck.”

Aaron’s picking Dumbo this week, which is a bit baffling to me. Dumbo is far from my favorite Disney movie, and it’s got some astounding racism in it, but it has a cute elephant and some truly heartwarming moments. It also currently has a 97% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so take that for what you will. One thing’s for sure: Dumbo wasn’t so terrible that it nearly destroyed hand-drawn animation. There’s only one film that holds that dubious honor.

There’s a lot of awful animated movies in the world, and compared to the worst ones out there, Home on the Range doesn’t look so bad. The problem is that it’s a Disney movie. There’s a standard to be observed here, not just of animation quality, but of storytelling, music, and heart. This movie lacks all three. That’s why Home on the Range is the worst hand-drawn Disney movie of all time.

So which Disney movie do you think is truly the worst? You know it ain’t Dumbo. Let us know in the poll!

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