In 2009, the Walt Disney Company revived their formerly extinct 2D animation department and made The Princess and the Frog. The stunningly rendered fairy-tale, directed by Disney stalwarts Ron Clements and John Musker, is a lavishly told, very funny and deeply moving story that deserves its place among the upper echelons of the studio’s classic movies. While it garnered strong critical praise and was nominated for an Oscar, it signaled the end of an era. To this date, almost ten years on, Disney have yet to make another 2D animated feature film, even as their iconic studio enters a new era of cartoon acclaim. Lower than expected box office returns were blamed for the decision, although Princess Tiana still has pride of place in Disney’s princess canon and remains popular with their growing audiences. For animation fans, it was a disappointing step for the company that has the greatest stranglehold on the medium in American cinema. However, at least it was a more dignified conclusion for 2D than the film that had preceded it.
It’s been fifteen years since Home on the Range limped into theatres and put the nail in the coffin of Disney’s hand-drawn animation studios. This story of three cows who decide to go on a quest to capture an infamous cattle farmer in hopes that the reward will save their small farm was viewed with cynicism upon release and derided as one of the studio’s worst films. It was the inevitable ending to a slow decline the cartoon titans had experienced since the dawn of the new millennium, but that didn’t make the final result sting any less. Directed by Will Finn and John Sanford, the 45th Disney animated feature film grossed around $14 million domestically in its opening weekend, landing in fourth place behind Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, Walking Tall, and Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy. It was a moment of real indignity for a company used to being the cream of the crop, and a moment in recent entertainment history that feels curious in a world where Disney now seem to own or are on their way to owning everything.
The ’90s were a moment of pure glory for Disney animation. After fighting off fears of bankruptcy and the major flop of The Black Cauldron threatening the closure of the animation department altogether, the studio was saved from doom thanks to The Little Mermaid. It made money, becoming the 9th highest grossing film of 1989, but the real success for Disney was in how the movie managed to out-gross their rival Don Bluth’s latest title, All Dogs Go to Heaven. After splitting from Disney to make his own animated films with the help of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, Bluth had found success filling the hole left by Disney on the entertainment landscape, as the studio struggled to find an identity. The Black Cauldron, their attempt to make something a little darker and edgier, was such a notorious flop that it was beat at the box office by the bloody Care Bears. That’s one of the reasons the success of The Little Mermaid proved so tantalizing: It brought them back to the forefront of audiences’ minds as the animation giants and reinforced what they did well, mainly princesses and re-imaginings of classic stories.
The Disney Renaissance of this decade is defined by this mould of storytelling. They were always a studio known by their fairy-tales, their childlike wonder, their happy-ever-afters, but seldom had it been so refined until the boom of the ’90s. They landed the first-ever Best Picture Oscar nomination for an animated film with Beauty and the Beast, and major critical and commercial hits followed. Princess movies were working out pretty good and so was that hero’s journey formula, modulated to fit unexpected source material like Victor Hugo and the pantheon of Greek gods. When a formula works, you stick to it, and nobody did that better than Disney, especially when said formula was crucial to them strengthening their watertight corporate branding. However, a Renaissance cannot last forever, and refusing to evolve with the times was what did Disney in the first time around, so change that formula did. And their first effort was a success.
Tarzan is widely considered to be the end of the ’90s Renaissance. The 1999 film wasn’t a musical, although it did prominently feature music by Phil Collins, and its story deviated from the narratives of films that preceded it. The villain was far less prominent in this story, which was an intriguing development given how the baddies are as big an icon of Disney as their princesses. Tarzan is a weird Disney film: It’s visually astounding and, similarly to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, represents a major step forward in terms of dealing with more adult themes and narratives, but it’s also straining to be more family-friendly with the tired talking animal tropes and strained slapstick. Still, it became the studio’s biggest financial hit since The Lion King, so on with the post-Renaissance vision they went.
Home on the Range feel like the last gasp of life from a creative and business model that had been dying for several years. Attempts to diverge from princesses and classic stories had been mixed, but even with those successes — The Emperor’s New Groove is a comedy classic and Atlantis: The Lost Empire is an underrated homage to old-school pulp adventure stories that deserves a second look — the financial gains were limited. The only exception to this was Lilo and Stitch, which gave Disney a new mascot thanks to its surprise success, but that did little to alleviate the pain caused by mega-flops like Treasure Planet. That film was such a financial mess that Disney wrote off its losses before they even released it. But at least that film looks gorgeous. Home on the Range, however…
Watching Home on the Range now, especially after you’ve seen all the middling efforts that preceded it, is a weird experience that’s also kind of sad. It’s one of those movies you can’t help but be confused about. It doesn’t seem to have a target demographic in mind and, despite some pretty visuals and a couple of fun songs, feels like it was made by people who didn’t care all that much about the end product. The project was originally conceived in the mid-’90s during the Renaissance, with the story focusing on a cowboy who has to deal with an undead cattle rustler in a ghost town. When that idea was scrapped, the story was changed in hopes of retaining all the hard work already done in pre-production, but it faced story problems for years. You can sense the discord in the finished product, which tries to tell a traditional Disney story of friendship and earnestness but is forced to throw in wise-cracking one-liners for Roseanne Barr to spew. Even at 76 minutes long, the film feels overstretched. Moments that would otherwise sing in other Disney films fall flat, like the moment when it’s revealed that the bad guy’s talent is yodeling (and the whole scene evolves into a much less interesting version of Pink Elephants on Parade). The only moments where it truly comes to life are when Alan Menken calls in Bonnie Raitt and kd lang to sing, but the songs themselves bring nothing to the narrative.
Home on the Range cost $110 million to make and grossed around $104 million worldwide, signaling the end of an era. It’s not a film Disney are keen to memorialize in any way and it’s experienced none of the nostalgic revival that titles like Treasure Planet have. You won’t find any reference to it in any of their many theme parks. Nowadays, it’s a curiosity at best and an oopsie at worst. In the age of Disney’s seeming invincibility, their animation department is back on top, winning Oscars and, with Pixar’s might, dominating the market in ways only Minions can keep up with. Still, they have only returned to 2D animation once since The Princess and the Frog for various scenes in Mary Poppins Returns. The studio that seemingly has the money, the clout and the fervent fan support to create whatever they want have abandoned the thing that made them in the first place. 2D animated film doesn’t really exist in Hollywood anymore. The medium may have ended up getting a somewhat more dignified conclusion than Home on the Range would have presented, but it’s still a waste that it had to end at all.
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