Home on the Range (2004)

2016 #32
Will Finn & John Sanford | 73 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / PG

I have many goals within my film viewing, quite apart from trying to watch 100 films every year. Some I’ve completed (the Rathbone Holmes series), others are almost done (every Spielberg film), others not so much (every Hitchcock film), and others I’ve barely begun (the Zatoichi series). One of these goals is to watch every Disney Animated Classic, their canon of feature animations that currently sits at 55 titles (with another scheduled for later this year, in the US at least). I did a pretty good job on the real classics while growing up, and have since filled the gaps of the modern classics, so I’m left ploughing through their lesser periods: the content they pumped out in the war-affected ’40s, and the post-Renaissance pre-Lasseter clusterfrack that was their ’00s produce. My best hope is to uncover a hidden gem while I mop up this dross.

Home on the Range is not a hidden gem.

The plot, such as it is, locates us in the Old West, where a trio of singing cows hunt for an outlaw in order to save the farm they live on. The early ’00s box office was not a great place for musicals, Westerns, or traditional animations, so one does have to wonder what inspired Disney to make their 45th Animated Classic a traditionally-animated musical Western.

Still, box office failure does not equate to a lack of quality. No, the film achieves that all by itself. There’s a plodding, familiar, poorly-structured story, with dull characters, who spout flat dialogue, which does nothing to help their unoriginal relationships. The voice acting is irritating, with the exception of one or two over-qualified performers (Dame Judi Dench?!) The songs are weedy, repetitious, and unmemorable. The villain’s number is the best of a bad bunch, but only because it has a moderately amusing reveal in the middle of it. The animation is unremarkable, besides some terrible CG intrusions. It seems to be under the impression that “hog” is a word for “cow”, based on the number of puns. A couple of gags do land — I even laughed out loud once, though I’ve forgotten why — but the majority is resolutely uninspired.

It’s actually not the worst of Disney’s canon (as I mentioned, there’s the odd flash of enjoyment, which is more than can be said for Chicken Little), but it’s still one for aficionados — or completists — only.

2 out of 5

What Dreams May Come (1998)

2015 #129
Vincent Ward | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 15 / PG-13

When What Dreams May Come first came out, the reviews seemed to conclude that it was rubbish, but at least visually splendid. Back in 1998, that put me off — “it’s not meant to be very good” was the takeaway thought there. As the years have gone on, for some reason those reviews (or possibly just one I extrapolated into a consensus, who knows?) stuck with me; and as my temperament as a film fan grew, that it was visually extraordinary (even if nothing else) began to seem reason enough to watch it. It lingered in the back of my mind, never quite becoming a “must see”, especially as the opportunity rarely (if ever) presented itself. So that’s more or less how I come to it now, 17 years since its release and those reviews — a long-awaited scratch of a long-lingering itch. (Perhaps this gives some insight into why/how it takes me so long to get round to watching recommendations/things I’m quite keen to see/etc.)

Adapted from a novel by Richard “I Am Legend” Matheson, the story concerns Dr Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) and his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra). Their perfectly lovely life is shattered when their two kids are killed in a car crash. Despite Annie suffering a mental breakdown, they hang in there… until Chris is killed in another car crash a few years later. He ascends to a kind of Heaven, a wondrous place controlled by his imagination — this is where those visuals come in. However, Chris learns that Annie has committed suicide, and so been condemned to Hell. He vows to do what has never been done, and travel to Hell to rescue her.

Hell, incidentally, also looks incredible, as do the various locales visited by Chris and his companions (played by Cuba Gooding Jr and Max von Sydow) on their way there. Director Vincent Ward and his team have created a rich, engrossing visual space here. It’s not just the Oscar-winning visual effects either, which create Chris’ initial realisation of Heaven as a kind of living painting, but also the locations, their decorations, and some fantastic sets. The design work is brilliant, and the vast majority of it still holds up today. Even the CGI doesn’t look glaringly like 17-year-old graphics, and in many cases what I presume is a mix of live action, models and some CGI is far more effective than the all-CG look it would likely have if made today.

However, the story is… problematic. Its logic comes and goes (the afterlife’s rules have to be obeyed or are able to be broken depending on the situation, for instance), it goes on too long, with too many asides, and there are needless twists, reveals, and reversals that are neither surprising (thanks to their ultimate predictability) nor illuminating (thanks to their unnecessariness). There were too many flashbacks and asides to real life, and I’d have liked it more if it stuck to the afterlife stuff — cut the flashbacks, limit the story to the afterlife quest, and stop mirroring it in the couple’s earlier real-life troubles. That would make the movie shorter, more streamlined, less wishy-washily sentimental, more focused, and therefore better.

Nonetheless, some will identify with the sentimental “love transcends death”-type message more than others, and there’s a chance those who like (or don’t mind) their films to be at the soppier end of the spectrum will genuinely love it. For the rest of us — for anyone who likes visual splendour in their movies, anyway — it does indeed merit a look for the imagery alone.

3 out of 5

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

2015 #137
John Singleton | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

John Singleton became the first African-American Best Director Oscar nominee, as well as the youngest, for this debut. 23 years on, his story of the lives and troubles of young black men in L.A. remains sadly pertinent.

Unfortunately, the film’s style doesn’t: some parts are plainly constructed and others have dated badly, like the horrible score — bland of-its-time TV soap music, when something befitting the characters (like the hippity-hop tunes that surface occasionally) would seem more appropriate.

Nonetheless, the believable characters, effective storytelling, and authentically new voice (even so temporally removed as we are now) mean it remains powerful filmmaking.

5 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.