Disney’s downward spiral of an identity crisis continues with Home on the Range, the story of two dairy cows and a show cow who set out on a western adventure in a bid to save their ranch, Patch of Heaven, from foreclosure.
Rather than focus on the expert storytelling for which Disney had become known during the renaissance, this film was more about playing catch-up to the other animation studios that had burst on the scene in the 1990s — notably Dreamworks and Pixar. There was a lot going on in this film that was clearly about imitating the primary competition, and it proved to be very distracting. Lucky Jack, the rabbit, drew similarities from Ice Age’s Scrat; the slapstick comedy of the farm took a page out of Warner Brothers’ famous Saturday morning cartoons; and the antics of the pigs and goat bore an amazing resemblance to Chuck Jones’ Looney Tunes. In this case, though, the story was weak and the opening setup was just plain dull, even confusing. The film never came close to rivalling the films coming out of both Dreamworks and especially Pixar at this time. Disney was being left behind in a bad way.
Beyond an utterly silly plot, the film’s lead trio of cattle are boring and unlikable, never able to rally the audience to their cause. Judi Dench’s Mrs. Caloway is a shrill, goodie-two-shoes; Jennifer Tilly’s Grace, while intended to be comedic relief, is simply annoying; and Roseanne Barr’s new-cow-on-the-farm Maggie is aggressive and headstrong — and not in a good way. In fact, the secondary distraction — an overly ambitious horse named Buck — could very well be the protagonist through the first half of the film. The most impressive aspect of this movie is that Disney managed to secure Grade-A voice talent for a very mediocre story, including the likes of k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt and Tim McGraw, whose voices grace the soundtrack. This likely had more to do with Disney’s reputation than the script. Or, at least, I’m hoping so.
Mostly, this was another flop that couldn’t compete with either Dreamworks or Pixar when it came to delighting audiences and filling theatre seats. It made a measly $13-million on its opening weekend and its lifetime gross remains less than half of its $110-million production budget. The film’s dismal showing caused the company to declare the (now temporary, we know) end of traditional animation at Disney.
The year 2004 brought corporate tensions at the company to a head. About a month before Home on the Range opened in theatres, chief executive Michael Eisner was ousted as chairman of the board after a shareholder revolt orchestrated by Roy E. Disney and his financial adviser Stanley Gold (who had both recently resigned as directors in protest of Eisner’s leadership) resulted in a 43 per cent non-confidence vote against Eisner. Eisner’s heavy-handed, close-to-the-chest management style was blamed for the company’s poor showing in recent years.
He would announce his retirement as CEO a year later, 12 months shy of the end of his contract.
Eisner’s two-decade run at the helm of the Walt Disney Company is often marred by the way in which he left, and the events that led to it. He was heavily criticized for his clashes with Disney partners. Most notably was the ego battle between him and Pixar chief Steve Jobs that resulted in a temporary severing of ties between the two companies. On Jan. 29, 2004, — just two days after Finding Nemo was nominated for four Academy Awards — Jobs announced negotiations with Disney were over, telling the press: “It’s a shame that Disney won’t be participating in Pixar’s future successes.” As chronicled in James B. Stewart’s excellent Eisner expose DisneyWar, after informing Disney the relationship was over, Jobs called Roy. Stewart writes:
He conceded that Disney was the logical partner for Pixar, but said, “I can never make a deal with Disney as long as Michael Eisner is there.”
But Eisner was also responsible for much of Disney’s growth and success from 1984-2005. In an article published just days before his departure as CEO, the New York Times outlined his legacy:
Under Mr. Eisner’s tenure, Disney grew from a small theme-park operator and movie studio into a sprawling media company. In that time, the company added 7 theme parks (for a total of 11), a cruise ship line, a successful stage play division and 10 domestic cable channels — including the highly profitable ESPN — and acquired the ABC broadcast network. Revenues increased to $30.75-billion in 2004, from $1.5-billion in 1984. The stock price has increased 1,646 per cent. And the number of employees grew fivefold, to 129,000, from 28,000.
It’s clear Eisner had amassed a media empire during his time at Disney. But he failed to realize the appropriate time to pass the torch. And the films being produced toward the end of his tenure, like Home on the Range, were added proof of this. As Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst, Tom Wolzien, told the LA Times after Home on the Range’s dismal box office receipts were reported: “This apparently is not the start of the solution to Pixar.” It’s safe to say you could substitute Pixar with the name of any competition in that sentence and it would remain accurate. It would take a change of guard and, ironically, Pixar, to bring the magic back.