Friday, April 02, 2004

Home on the Range

Jumping ahead by a few decades here, what started in 1937 with Snow White now apparently ends in 2004 with Home on the Range, which the Disney studio says is their last feature film in the traditional, hand-drawn style of 2D animation. All films from now on, outside of the sequels and whatnot coming from Australia’s studio, will be computer generated in 3D, like the upcoming Chicken Little. For animators like myself who still work in the traditional style, this is a bit unsettling, but change is inevitable in any industry, and animation is not immune to that. Ultimately, it’s the story and characters that will carry a film, regardless of the medium. You could have told Toy Story 2 with stick figures and still had a hit. So hopefully Disney can combine their new tools with good stories; if they can’t, maybe they’ll go back to the drawing board!

Click to enalrgeMany of Disney’s films are often metaphorical of what goes on in the studio at the time. In Home on the Range, a group of farm animals are trying desperately to save their farm from a money-grabbing swindler. While the animals succeed in the end, the 2D animators at Disney have probably lost the battle, and are singing “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again?” as they do in the film itself. The lackluster marketing behind this film and the lukewarm response from the audience may indicate that the sun is indeed setting on decades of peg bars and paper cuts.

I think Lilo & Stitch would have been an incredible finale to the 2D reign at Disney, signifying the rest of the world moving on with their technological changes and advances, with a simple ‘ohana’ living peacefully in a watercolor paradise, content to keep on going in harmony. The 2D medium I’m sure will do just that, enduring amongst the indies and the smaller studios, while brushed aside by the corporate giants, which I think will be a good thing. Lilo & Stitch, second to Mulan as being completely produced at Disney’s Florida studio, was that unique film that was guided by the vision of one artist, Chris Sanders, and his signature style and bizarre storytelling. Rarely has that happened at Disney, not since Fred Moore gave Mickey Mouse a makeover or Mary Blair was the inspiration behind the films’ overall designs. The Disney corporation gave the artists at the smaller, simpler Florida studio pretty much free reign, resulting in a brilliant work of art not tampered with by the status quo. Walt Disney himself had a great deal of faith in his artists, who proved themselves capable of frantically catching up with his unique vision. Through Walt inspiring them to believe they could do better, the artists did just that. This was exemplified in Lilo & Stitch; you could sense that the artists believed in the story and were truly inspired by Sanders’ vision. It resonated with an emotional core and Go tospoke of true feelings of rejection, belonging, and social torture that I’m sure many of the animators felt as it resonated from their pencils. It spoke of so many issues relevant to today’s culture, in the same way that Pinocchio and Bambi were relevant to the goings-on of World War II when they were released.

What I sensed from Home on the Range is that, despite the stellar animation, there wasn’t the same degree of faith and belief in the story on behalf of the studio. The original title was Sweating Bullets, and it went through many changes, re-writes and complete overhauls before finally arriving to its conclusion. Click to go to THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVEThese kind of production problems will either help or destroy a film. It helped with Emperor’s New Groove, a delightful sleeper which was originally called Kingdom of the Sun and was apparently much more serious originally. I think they realized it wasn’t working, so they decided to just loosen up and have fun with it, and the results were a hilarious cult classic that invoked more of a Warner Brothers wit, combined with the traditional Disney sentiment. Home on the Range tried the same thing, and didn’t work as well, but it did have a few things going for it: great design & animation (animator Mike Surrey’s Buck the Horse is a particular delight), beautifully rendered backgrounds, plenty of action and a positive message of family and fighting for your freedom. There were a few nostalgic design elements in the Pecos Bill western scenery, the very angular design style reminiscent of the UPA-inspired graphic look of older Disney efforts such as shorts Pigs is Pigs and Toot, Whistle, Plunk & Boom, and a psychedelic ‘yodeling’ sequence by the villain that invoked Dumbo’s “Pink Elephants on Parade” and The Three Caballeros. Overall, the characters weren’t endearing enough, villain threatening enough, or the emotional arc strong enough to make it as satisfying as other Disney films, but I enjoyed elements of it nonetheless…a fun wacky film for the entire family.

Click to enalrgeFrom a spiritual perspective, Home on the Range does not resonate with quite as much obvious symbolism as say, Pinocchio or Lion King, most likely as a result of the studio not having as much faith in the project. Much like the filmmakers themselves, perhaps we have to dig a bit deeper to find these meanings. The animals live in harmony on a dairy farm called ‘Patch of Heaven’ where the elderly farmer Pearl treats everyone like family. The threat of selling the farm inspires cows Maggie, Mrs. Calloway and Grace to go into the desert, the ‘wilderness’, in order to save their home. The Bible, of course, is full of characters leaving home to go into the wilderness: Adam & Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the Hebrews leaving Egypt, Jesus’ temptation in the desert, the Apostles’ missionary travels, etc.

At one of the lowest points in their journey, a rainstorm accompanies a musical number which asks, ‘Lord, when will the sun ever shine again?’ The cows wake up to find they are being assisted by Lucky Jack, the outcast rabbit, who is described as a shaman. Jack has been left with virtually nothing in his life, yet he serves the cows by feeding them, like the Good Samaritan and other hospitable figures.

All good villains need some kind of parallel to Satan, and Alameda Slim is no exception, in representing the whole idea of “disguise.” Slim is wanted all over the country, but manages to disguise himself to the townsfolk as a wealthy land developer. The Bible describes Satan as often disguising himself as an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14) so we don’t recognize him. When the cows arrive to ultimately save their farm, Slim is unmasked, recognized by the town and defeated. The humorous flip-side of this is that Slim’s own minions, or “demons” as it were, who all look the same, don’t recognize him when he’s in disguise, because they are only familiar with the true evil side of him.

The only character who is immune to Slim’s hypnotic yodeling that places all other cows into a trance is named Grace, signifying the grace of God that protects us from such temptations. Grace spews forth all kinds of New Agey self-help psychobabble, but that humor is mostly there for the adults anyway, and is a by-product of the popular spirituality of our culture these days. The other interesting thing about Grace’s character is how she balances out the personalities of the other two cows. Mrs. Calloway represents the old traditions, very set in her ways and proper, while Maggie is the younger streetwise trouble-maker. These two personalities provide much conflict: young vs. old, tradition vs. recklessness, rules vs. rebellion. But Grace stands between the two, always there to provide the balance and encourage the understanding. Indeed, it is the actual principle of grace that brings clashing values, opinions and personalities into peace and harmony.

Ultimately, Home on the Range should remind us that we each have our own little ‘Patch of Heaven’ to fight for, and it is a ‘home’ that is being prepared for us. And luckily we don’t have to highjack a train engine to get there… (sure looks like fun, though!)
--Copyright 2004 Ken Priebe

Links: HJ DISNEY SERIES by Ken Priebe
It All Started With a Mouse
Snow White
Home on the Range
Nightmare Before Christmas