Faced with losing their farm home to debt collectors, three cows go on a quest to track down cattle rustler Alameda Slim (Quaid) and collect the reward set for his capture. But they have rivals to contend with: bounty hunter Rico (Charles Dennis) and enthusiastic horse Buck (Gooding Jr.).
And so, apparently, it ends. For the foreseeable future, this is to be the last effort from the Disney traditional (ie 2-D) animation wing, a studio that's been responsible for more innovation and quality than all its peers put together, but has struggled for hits during the past decade. But it was never particularly the medium that let the studio down, rather its struggle for decent ideas and a need to satisfy every age group.
It's a shame, then, that this intentionally small film will be lumbered with such expectation, because it has none of the grandeur and awards aspirations of the usual releases; it's happy simply to be entertaining, a quality that shone from Disney's early output.
Once intended as a quite different tale titled Sweating Bullets, it's reminiscent of The Emperor's New Groove, which had a similarly troubled gestation and echoes that film's 'no frills' approach. There are no grand set-pieces here and the animation is as spare and angular as Disney's early work, with only a smattering of CG shots. Pleasingly, it also possesses Emperor's dry wit, with its satisfyingly barbed script brought to life by a game cast.
The vocal casting is inspired, certainly Disney's best for years. Dench gives a good haughty turn, mocking the brashness and loopiness of her fellow bovines (Barr and Tilly) delightfully, and Cuba Gooding Jr. hasn't been as amiable since Jerry Maguire. The quality shines even in the bit-parts, with Steve Buscemi and Patrick Warburton popping up in teeny cameos.
There's little to the plot - cows go after villain, cows find villain, farcical chase ensues - but at 76 minutes it makes good use of its time and offers scant opportunity for little ones to get bored, although there's less for adults since the standard pop-culture references that Disney usually sprinkle around liberally are few and far between.
The reintroduction of musical numbers works to varying effect, with Alan Menken's (Aladdin, Beauty And The Beast, The Little Mermaid) songs suitably yee-haaawing but not as memorable as his other work. If nothing else, though, they're far preferable to the awful wailings of Phil Collins and Sting, and it should be applauded for not having a mooning ballad stinking up its score.
It's certainly not the last hurrah that Disney deserve and it won't stick in the memory, but judged apart from its mousehouse history it's highly likeable, pleasantly unpretentious and plenty amusing.