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 aboutI remember
seeing Aladdin with a highly responsive date-night crowd
in a downtown Boston theaterbut 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
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
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 featuresdelivered, 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 itselfcomputer-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 bankruptit'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]