First Theatrical Release: April 2, 2004
First Home Viewing Release: September 14, 2004
My Rating: 2/5 stars
Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection
Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters include Grace, Mrs. Calloway, Maggie, Pearl, Audrie the Chicken, and Annie. There are plenty of conversations between the three cows about saving their farm and other topics that are not related to men.
There have been very few movies that I have been dreading in this project, but I have to admit, this was one of them. I remember walking out of the theater with my sisters after we went to it, all of us silent while we waited for the first of us to admit, “That was stupid.” I don’t remember who broke the silence, but I still cite seeing this movie in the theater as a true badge of my Disney devotion. But I never thought I’d have to sit through it again!
This movie has SO many things working against it when it comes to my Disney taste. I don’t particularly like “talking animal” movies. I am bored to tears by Westerns — in fact, its one of the only book genres I actually avoid. I grew up on a dairy farm and somehow just can’t get behind anthropomorphized cows. And the humor is mostly low-brow, which is also not really my thing — I only laughed once in the whole film. It comes packaged in garishly ugly animation, and it pretty much fails when it comes to plot, characterization, and comedy, too. And sadly, its one of the last traditionally animated films the studio ever produced (I’m still hoping for a resurgence in the future.)
Since I have a feeling this is one of those Disney movies even a lot of hardcore fans haven’t seen, I’ll summarize the plot briefly. Maggie the cow’s farm is foreclosed after Alameda Slim steals the family’s cattle, and she goes to live at Patch of Heaven, where she meets Grace and Mrs. Calloway and all the animals are one big happy family looked over by the kind-hearted Pearl (who refuses to sell or eat them and always has room for “one more.”) But it turns out Pearl’s farm is about to be foreclosed, too, so the cows hit the road to hunt down Alameda Slim, who has a reward bounty on his head that is just enough to save the farm. So it’s essentially a road trip movie. With cows. It’s not an incredibly original story, but plot has never been the most important element to me. Even a weak plot can be saved by strong characterization. But, about that …
This movie probably has the most shallow characterization of any feature length Disney film, excluding the “package” era. Each character is essentially a sidekick, embodying a single trait. They are more one-dimensional than each of the Seven Dwarfs — after all, even grumpy smiled. Maggie is the “brassy” one; Mrs. Calloway is the “proper” one; Grace is the “ditzy” one; Pearl is the sweet, hard-working one, Buck is the foolishly ambitious one, etc. The most complex characterization probably comes from Alameda Slim, who is a cattle thief by night and a wealthy investor in foreclosed farms by day — and he yodels! But that’s about as interesting as it gets.
I was especially impatient with the way the main characters’ traits depended on female stereotypes. Mrs. Calloway is immediately jealous when Maggie, a “show cow” arrives on her farm. The three heifers are referred to as “girls” throughout the movie even though they are clearly adults. Most of the time they are bickering, undermining ideas about female friendship or solidarity. The ditzy one thinks some steer they meet along the way seem like “nice guys” even though they are basically sexually harassing them.
Shallow characterization is fairly standard in comedies, though, and isn’t necessarily a deal breaker — not if the comedy can redeem it.
Of course, here it can’t.
I mentioned that the humor was pretty low-brow. I also mentioned that the characterization was stereotypical and a little on the sexist side. What happens when you put these things together? Yup, sexist humor!!
I knew this was not going to be a fun ride when the movie opens with a breast implant joke, as Maggie’s voiceover tells the audience, “Yeah, they’re real,” as the camera ogles her udder. Seriously, Disney, you had to go there? When the cows go into town they end up crashing a girlie show at a saloon where I think we are supposed to find humor in the fact that the dancing girls are old, fat, and ugly — because people who don’t fit unrealistic standards of beauty are funny, right? At least one of these dancing ladies is a dude in drag, because transgenderism and/or cross-dressing is also very funny. On top of that, one of the patrons at the saloons finds out the dude dressed like a lady is his DAD, and both father and son are disturbed to discover one another at the joint. (If this weren’t done in such an offhand way, it might actually offer a provocative insight into the way people attempt to keep their family life and their sexual tastes divorced from one another, but it’s clear there is no space for reflection in this movie.)
Later the three heifers get cat-called and sexually harassed as they try to make their way past a herd of steer — a scene that will make any woman who has ever walked past a group of men alone, or even with a couple other women, cringe. Because fearing you are going to be harassed or assaulted or raped is definitely funny. At the end of the movie, two of the steer show up again to yell more inane things as they run alongside the train the cows are frantically driving home to save their farm. Oh, and at the end of the movie? The cows end up dancing with them. Because sexual harassers are nice guys, once you get to know them!
The men don’t fare any better. When they aren’t portrayed as harassers, they are portrayed as puffed-up, self-important, and out of touch with reality (Buck the horse), crazy (the shaman rabbit), lazy (the sheriff), or, of course, evil (Alameda Slim and SPOILER ALERT Rico).
Also, I got the sense that this movie was supposed to be funny simply because it WAS about cows. And cows are, by their definition, female. Not only that, but they are a female animal that is undeniably sexual and exploited: it is one of the only species about which we can talk openly about their breasts (but we give them a different name to make that easier). They are an animal that humans get pregnant precisely so we can exploit the milk of said breasts. And what do we do when we want to insult a woman? We call her a cow, which implies that she is fat, ugly, and only worth exploitation for her “goods.” (Anyone else remember the save-sex-for-marriage euphemism, “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?”) There is supposed to be something implicitly humorous about three women (referred to as girls) deciding to go out on their own to save their farm, and I think their antics are supposed to have a sort of Lucy and Ethel charm.
But instead, the movie has a decidedly misogynistic tone — and I found myself wondering why the likes of Roseanne Barr and Judy Dench would agree to participate in this project. I think when I walked away from it after its theatrical release with the opinion that it was “stupid,” what I was really feeling was that it was “gross.”
So, was there ANYTHING to redeem this movie?
Well, it has some lovely music. Usually I can forgive a lot of shortcomings in a movie if it has the right music, but in this case, I feel embarrassed that greats such as K.D. Lang and Bonnie Raitt and Alan Menken have their names attached to this cowpie. And for some reason, I really got a kick out of this buffalo character.
Still, neither of those things is enough to entice me to ever sit through this movie a third time. I can’t get it back to the library soon enough!