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Death in the Afternoon

Sometimes I run across laments for our loss of moviegoing as a "communal experience" when we watch films alone, or with a small group, on home screens, as opposed to seeing them in a theater. I understand what such commentators are talking about—I remember seeing Aladdin with a highly responsive date-night crowd in a downtown Boston theater—but I wonder what they would make of the "communal experience" I had when I saw Home on the Range one weekend afternoon, a couple of weeks after it opened.

Home on the Range DVDThe theater was empty except for me and a couple of mothers with small children, maybe seven or eight people in all. Kids and mothers alike seemed stupefied. There was no buzz of anticipation before the film started, and no laughter or other signs of pleasure while it ran. These were people who were watching cartoons on the big screen, instead of on a television set, because they wanted to get out of the house.

Home on the Range is the last hand-drawn animated feature from the Walt Disney studios, the end of the line after almost seventy years of glory and decline. In its design it is a departure from recent Disney features, its characters drawn with some of the sharp edges of Ed Benedict's designs for Tex Avery's MGM cartoons and the early Hanna-Barbera series. It is, in other words, more "cartoony" than anything Disney has made in years.

Its design is the film's only point of interest. Home on the Range is like a mediocre seven-minute cartoon from the fifties, expanded to feature length and with all the jokes removed. (The film is nothing if not jokey, but real gags are scarce.) The silly story, with three cows as its heroines, cries out for tongue-in-cheek treatment, but there's no wit in the telling, only hyper-active, MTV-style cutting and lots of the smart-ass dialogue endemic in recent Disney features—delivered, of course, by smart-ass performers like Roseanne Barr. Amid all the frantic shucking and jiving, there are embarrassing moments when the writers and directors can't resist trying to make their audience, what there is of it, care for their ridiculous bovine trio. Throw in superfluous songs that put a brake on the story, and you have a train wreck. (Actually, there is one in the film itself—computer-animated, of course.)

As I once read, and try always to remember, no one wants to make a bad movie (I'm not sure that's always true, but filmmakers deserve the benefit of the doubt). I'm disturbed by the thought that hundreds of good people have devoted years of their lives, and millions of dollars, to making a film as gapingly empty as Home on the Range. The Disney tradition of hand-drawn animation is not only at an end, it is also artistically bankrupt—it's clear now that the shortcomings of Home on the Range, Brother Bear, Treasure Planet, and their ilk were beyond remedy by better scripts, or, certainly, more money. The people who made those films were sealed inside a culture that made the production of excellent hand-drawn animated features impossible, despite the good intentions that surely fueled the artists' work and, for all I know, may even have motivated the actions of the Disney "suits."

I still believe, more than ever, that hand-drawn animation, as an art form, is vastly superior to the computer-generated variety. Watching a lot of Bob Clampett's Warner cartoons, as I did recently, leads irresistibly to that conclusion. Home on the Range was preceded by a trailer for Shrek 2, and I cringed, as I did when I saw the original, at the plastic-doll look of the characters and the stiffness of their movements. But there was, alas, more cleverness in that trailer than in the whole of Home on the Range. Every DreamWorks animated film so far has been cynical and false, and I have no reason to believe that Shrek 2 will be any different. But at least it will be funny; and at least it won't break my heart.

[Posted April 25, 2004]