Welcome to Revisiting Disney! This week, we’re looking at two Disney movies that have never been my favorites, personally, Home on the Range and Chicken Little! Like always, I have labeled each category so if you want to skip to the parts that interest you most, feel free. And, of course, if you have any thoughts, burning or otherwise, please share in the comments!
BACKGROUND OF Home on the Range and Chicken Little
I remember when Michael Crichton died. After his death, someone found a completed manuscript in the back of his file cabinet and decided to publish his historical fiction adventure story about pirates. It seemed like the kind of thing you write, just to see if you can (especially because it was buried in the back of the man’s file cabinet). It wasn’t my favorite book by him, but I remember thinking, “a bad Michael Crichton book is still pretty good.” I think that can apply to Disney movies as well.
When I thought up this project, there were some Disney movies that I was really excited to get to research and learn more about. Even the ones that I liked less had an interesting story behind them! However, there were two that I was looking forward to just a little less. Today, we’re looking at them anyway.
Home on the Range was released on April 2nd, 2004, and Chicken Little was released on November 4th, 2005. Neither of them were nominated for an Academy Award, though both were nominated for Annie Awards in their years. Home on the Range was the last traditionally animated film before the Disney Studio started the 5-year hiatus on such films (the hiatus would end in 2009, with The Princess and the Frog).
Home on the Range was written and directed by Will Finn and John Sanford, both Disney veterans. Finn had worked on Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Rescuers Down Under in the animation department, while Sanford had worked on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan as part of the story team.
Chicken Little was written by Disney veterans Mark Dindal and Mark Kennedy, and directed by Dindal. Both men were Disney veterans, with Dindal having directed The Emperor’s New Groove and worked as an effects animator for The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company, The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin.
Kennedy had worked as a writer on Hercules, Tarzan, The Emperor’s New Groove, and Home on the Range, while also working in the animation department on The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Treasure Planet, Home on the Range, Bolt, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen.
Chicken Little is unique because it was the 2nd fully computer generated feature film that Disney created (if you count Dinosaur). Except for The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh (which is not considered part of the official canon), this would be the norm in Disney animation going forward.
Patrick Stewart was in Chicken Little as the ever funny teacher, Mr. Woolensworth. This was also the last film that Don Knotts was involved in; it was released months before he passed away.
The music of Home on the Range was written by Alan Menken (who had worked on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and would go on to work on Enchanted and Tangled), and Glenn Slater (who would also go on to work on the music for Tangled).
The two men worked well together, and if I have any complaints about Home on the Range, it does not come from the music. The first song, “Home on the Range,” is performed by Tim Blevins, Gregory Jbara, William Parry, Wilbur Pauley, and Peter Samuel. “Little Patch of Heaven” was performed by k.d. Lang, and “Will The Sun Ever Shine Again” was performed by Bonnie Raitt. “Yodle-Adle-Eedle-Idle-Oo,” the yodel song, was performed by Randy Quaid, Randy Erwin, and Kerry Christensen. “Wherever the Trail May Lead” was performed by Tim McGraw, and “Anytime You Need A Friend” was performed by The Beu Sisters.
The songs fit the overall mood of the story and are appropriately Western. The background music feels very similar to me; Alan Menken is great at leading his audience to the appropriate feeling of the moment that compliments the animation. The music and lyrics are wonderful. Additionally, the fact that the villain steals cattle by using his yodeling to put them under a spell means that music plays an important role in the story.
Chicken Little has a fun soundtrack that feels more like the live-action movies of the 1990’s than a Disney movie; the songs fit perfectly for where they are, but could be on the radio and not lose anything. Don’t get me wrong, though, it really is a great soundtrack. There are some moments where characters sing, but for the most part, it was catchy music overlaid on the animation. Artists include The Barenaked Ladies, Diana Ross, R.E.M, and Five for Fighting.
For Home on the Range, I learned that this was the final film to use the CAPS (Computer Animation Production System). The system was apparently dismantled when the animation unit in Florida was shut down.
The animation team on Home on the Range went on several trips to Arizona to both get a feel for how the animals move and to see how the atmosphere looks. Christy Maltese Lynch, the Background Supervisor, talks about watching the Disney Western shorts as inspiration when they were working to create a Western look and feel. She also talks about exaggerating the colors that were found in nature to make the background more “out there,” but it was all based on the colors found in the deserts of Arizona.
Chicken Little, in addition to being the first (or second, depending on how you count) Disney movie to be fully computer generated, had some unique animation tricks to it. First, I found it interesting that Chicken Little has 250,000 feathers on him. Secondly, the new CGI design is called Disney Digital.
The animation team created a tool that they called “Chicken Wire,” which was basically a model of their characters made out of wire so that they could move the characters in interesting ways; the goal was to get the 2D animation style, even though they were doing 3D animation. Another piece that was created for this film was the “Shelf Control,” which let them see the entire character on their screens at once, and still, be able to tinker with parts of it.
Home on the Range opens with a dairy cow named Maggie, who loses her home thanks to the cattle rustler Alameda Slim. Maggie is brought to the farm Little Patch of Heaven and finds herself a bit of a fish out of the water, especially when she meets the uptight cow matriarch Mrs. Calloway and the free-spirited and tone-deaf Grace.
When the cows learn that their beloved farm is going to be foreclosed on in three days, the three unlikely heroines set out to save it, realizing that the bounty on Slim will save their farm. The clock is ticking, however, as they have to match wits with Alameda Smith and his sinister plan to own the entire territory, and the hypnotic power his yodeling has over cows.
Not only that, but our heroines also have to deal with cocky young Buck, a Sheriff’s horse who desperately wants to be a hero and thinks that he finally has a chance by teaming up with his hero, the bounty hunter Rico; and face the fact that they come from different backgrounds and are very different cows.
Not everyone is as they seem, however. Will secrets and lies overcome our heroines? Will they ever make peace? Will Maggie get revenge on Slim for her old farm? Can three cows catch the most wanted criminal in the territory? Will Buck be happy working with Rico? Can a tone-deaf cow keep her friends focused? And will Little Patch of Heaven be saved? All these questions and more are answered in Home on the Range.
Chicken Little is the story of a young chicken who told his town that they were in danger because the sky was falling. After the chaos has calmed down, everyone is furious, including Chicken’s father, Buck., who convinces the towns-animals that it was just an acorn. No one believes Chicken, not even his father, and this haunts him for years.
Although his friends Abby and Runt tell him he needs to talk to his father, Chicken decides to make his father proud by joining the baseball team at school. When he wins the big game and the pennant for his town, Chicken is thrilled that his father is so proud of him. That night, however, he is hit on the head by a piece of the sky.
Turns out, it was part of an alien spaceship. When trying to save his friend, Fish, who ended up on board, Chicken and the others discover that the aliens have put an x through every planet in the galaxy and circled Earth. Concerned by that, our heroes also don’t realize that a baby alien has followed them out of the ship. Frantic when they find him gone, the aliens are determined to save their baby, whatever the cost to Earth.
Will anyone believe Chicken about the aliens? Will he and his father have a heart to heart and clear the air? Will Chicken ever admit to having a thing for Abby? Can one little chicken and his friends save the world, and reunite a lost alien with his family, before it’s too late? Watch Chicken Little to find out!
My favorite description of Home on the Range from the “Making Of” special called it “Charlie’s Angels with Cows,” and that was a hilarious way to describe it. The story is a twist on the classic Western, using the “damsel in distress” idea and making the female cows the ones that went out and saved the day. There are also shades of “The Pied Piper” in here, using music to draw away a large group.
Originally, the story was going to be a ghost story, about a timid character who would confront a terrifying cattle rustler. This character went from being a young guy from the East to a kid to a little bull named Bullets. Then, it transformed into the story about the three cows (amazingly voiced by Judi Dench, Roseanne Barr, and Jennifer Tilly), who set out to save their farm from the sinister yodeling rustler, Alameda Slim (voiced by Randy Quaid). They also interact with Buck (voiced by Cuba Gooding, Jr), a horse who desperately wants to be a hero.
Chicken Little is based on the story of “Chicken Little,” or the story where the sky is falling and a devious fox takes advantage of the dumb chicken and the other animals who believe him. In the story, Chicken Little really was hit by an acorn and is headed to find the king to warn him that the sky is falling. Chicken Little brings a variety of friends with him, and when Foxy Loxy sees them, he tricks them into a cave and eats them all for dinner (being a predator).
Disney had adapted the story in 1943 as a short (Chicken Little), which looks like a really clever adaption. Foxy Loxy convinces the gullible Chicken Little that the sky is falling, but the head rooster, Cocky Locky, proves that this isn’t true. Foxy Loxy retaliates by spreading rumors about Cocky Locky’s intelligence and is able to have chicken dinner after all.
Originally, Chicken Little was going to start out with the story of Chicken Little as we know it, traditionally animated and narrated by Don Knotts. This idea was scrapped, and we got the opening in the film today, where Buck Little, outlines the different ways movies can open before giving us the flashback to the day Chicken Little’s life was ruined.
In 2004, fox hunting was outlawed in the UK, Facebook officially started at Harvard, Afghanistan had its first democratic election (Hamid Karzai won), the worst locusts plagues in forty years hit West Africa, a million people fled Sudan after the genocide in Darfur, Hurricane Charley wreaked havoc, the EU added ten new members, Japan was rocked by earthquakes and typhoons, Spain withdrew from Iraq (and we transferred control of Iraq to the Iraqi people), and George W. Bush was re-elected as president of the United States. There were also bombings, more natural disasters, and other events in the world, these are just some highlights.
Of course, as someone whose family is from Boston, the most important thing that happened in 2004 is the fact that the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, for the first time since 1918, breaking the curse in a series of very exciting games. Maybe that’s the historical context here; cows can become bounty hunters and the Red Sox can win the World Series. Life is full of possibilities. Anything can happen.
But also, with so much heavy stuff happening, maybe the lighthearted Home on the Range, with its message of hope in the face of tragedy was created to stand in contrast to the tumult of these years. I love to laugh when I’m sad, and there is enough emotion here to let some of that out as well.
Now, to 2005 and the year of Chicken Little; this was the year that YouTube was created, but it was also the year that Hurricane Katrina hit the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Katrina flooded New Orleans, and over 1500 people died. It was a horrible event. Other awful things that happened in 2005 include terrorist attacks in Egypt, Typhoon Damrey in China, terrorist attacks globally, fires in Portugal, tornados in the Midwest, Hurricane Stan killed over 1600 people in Mexico and Central America, Pope John Paul II died (I have some friends who were in Rome at the time and accidentally walked into the funeral through the VIP entrance), and there were several severe earthquakes.
On a happier note, the Xbox 360 was released that year and Lance Armstrong won his 7th Tour de France. Syria ended the occupation of Lebanon, an occupation that lasted for almost 30 years, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected the president of Liberia, the first woman to be elected there.
Chicken Little might be another one of those light-hearted movies made during a time when the world was being turned on its head (when it felt like the sky was falling if I may). There were great things happening in the world, though, that mixed in with the tragedy, people succeeding and making the world a better place. Chicken Little didn’t stop doing what was right, even though people hated him for it. He saved the world, and in the end, it was worth it.
From Home on the Range, I learned that anything is possible. A group of cows can save the day, yodeling can enchant cattle, the Red Sox can win the World Series. Life is amazing.
Another lesson from Home on the Range is that sometimes heroes let us down. I don’t want to spoil it, but that’s there.
From both of these movies, I learned that our differences make us stronger. Mrs. Calloway, Grace, Buck, and Maggie were able to catch Alameda and save Little Patch of Heaven because they worked together. Their strengths and weaknesses worked together, and that’s how they saved the day. Chicken Little and his friends were very different, but together, they could save the day.
From Chicken Little, I learned the importance of doing the right thing, even if it’s hard and people think you’re crazy for it. Chicken had to choose between saving his friends and possibly looking like a crazy liar, and he chose to save his friends.
Chicken Little also emphasized the importance of communication. If Chicken and Buck had had a stronger sense of communication, things might have been very different for them in the film. It also reminds us that parents will do anything for their children, even get the Intergalactic Armada and invade a planet.
DOES IT HOLD UP?
I think I figured out the problem that I have with both of these movies; they just don’t feel like Disney movies to me. They feel like Dreamworks or Warner Brothers movies. This isn’t a bad thing, there are some Dreamworks films that I love a ton, but it was just a jarring shift to go from the artistry and story of Brother Bear to Home on the Range with all the burp jokes and Chicken Little with all the pop culture references. There was a shift, and although both films will make you laugh, just know that it might seem a bit out of place at times. Chicken Little is available to stream on Netflix, and Home on the Range is available to rent on Amazon.
For next week: Meet the Robinsons and Bolt
If you enjoyed this post and the others in the Revisiting Disney series, and have found yourself wishing that you could find them all in one convenient and bound book with eight extra essays, there is an option for you! Check out A Journey Through Disney: My Look Back Through Disney Canon, now available on Amazon as both a Kindle book ($4.99) and a paperback ($11.99).
Bailey, Adrian. Walt Disney’s World of Fantasy. Everest House Publishers. New York, New York. 1982.
Finch, Christopher. The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York, New York. 1975.
Johnston, Ollie and Frank Thomas. The Disney Villain. Hyperion. New York, New York. 1993.
Thomas, Bob. Disney’s Art of Animation From Mickey Mouse to Hercules. Hyperion. New York, New York. 1992.
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