Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I'm spending this week recuperating from Christmas and whatever illness has hit me and my husband. Hope the holidays were kind to all of you. Check back next week for a new article.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Upcoming Animation - Shrek Forever After

The trailer for DreamWorks' fourth Shrek film is up. Shrek Forever After (Get it? Four-ever After?) is said to be the last film in the series. Judging from the trailer, it looks like Shrek's latest adventure could have been called "It's An Ogreful Life":


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thoughts on "Fantastic Mr. Fox"


This is a film I’d been waiting for see for a long time. I don’t have and particular attachment to the Roald Dahl book it’s based on, which I vaguely remember as being mostly lengthy descriptions of how Mr. Fox goes about outwitting the farmers. But my husband loves the films of Wes Anderson, who was attached to Fantastic Mr. Fox early on. I was curious to see how Anderson would handle his first animated film and was looking forward to more puppet animation from Henry Selick, director of The Nightmare Before Christmas. The movie spent several years in development, surviving both the closing of its production company and Selick leaving to direct Coraline. For a while, I worried that it would be permanently stuck in development hell. But now its out in theaters and I’ve had a chance to see it.

As the film opens, the title character and his wife are stealing chickens from a farmer’s henhouse. During the heist, Mrs. Fox tells her husband that she’s pregnant and, like many a movie wife, insists that her husband find a safer line of work. Like so many movie husbands, Mr. Fox acquiesces, but later finds himself dissatisfied with his new life. He writes a newspaper column that no one reads and his meager income has his family living in a hole, acceptable by animal standards, but far from the good life. Mr. Fox purchases an upscale tree home, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the fact that it’s located near the factories of the notoriously nasty farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Once settled, he starts planning his final heist, setting in motion events that will lead to the farmers declaring all-out war on Mr. Fox, his family, and the whole animal community.

The movie doesn’t go out of its way to be a movie for kids, which is fine by me. It isn’t that it’s horribly inappropriate for kids, or even that kids wouldn’t like it. But the movie is a Wes Anderson film first and foremost. If you’re already familiar with his work, you’ll find his signature all over this movie, from the Wes Anderson regulars in the cast (Rushmore star Jason Schwartzman as Mr. Fox’s son Ash, Owen Wilson as the school coach, and Bill Murray as Fox’s lawyer Badger) to the way the characters interact with one another to the movie’s overall quirkiness. This combines with the darkness that is present in most Roald Dahl stories to create a movie that doesn’t make a whole lot of concessions to a younger audience. There is no ambiguity about the fact that the farmers intend to kill the Fox family, a fact made more disturbing when it becomes clear that the farmers know the animals can speak, write, and paint landscapes. During the movie’s emotional low point, Mrs. Fox tells her husband that she does love him, but sadly admits that she now believes she should never have married him, a far cry from the traditional animated romances where love is all you really need.

I’m glad to see puppet animation still being made. The argument that it could be done equally well with computers is always there and will probably get more and more persuasive as the cost of computer animation goes down. But there is still something about the look of puppet animation that I have yet to see computers accurately replicate. This quality is on full display in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Henry Selick’s puppet animation films tend to be so smoothly animated that they almost lose the little nuances that separate puppet animation from computer animation. So I was happy to see the characters in Fantastic Mr. Fox moving in the rough, fluttery, almost choppy way that is particular to puppet animation. I wish I had a better description for how this movement looks, since the words I use make it sound inferior. But it isn’t inferior, just different. I find it very appealing and an excellent fit for the story.

Part of what makes the movie feel less like the average kids’ film is the fact that it doesn’t beat the audience over the head with every single concept and theme. Mr. Fox’s desires are not as simple as “a better house” or “more danger and excitement.” As he admits later in the film, what he wants is to be the fantastic individual the film’s title suggest that he is, someone who amazes everyone by accomplishing the impossible. This idea does get explained outright, but Mr. Fox’s realization that what he wants may not be what he needs is played more subtly. There are a couple of big speeches, but they are much less direct than “Now I know I can be fantastic by just leading a normal life.”

The secondary plot of the film revolves around the Foxes’ son Ask. While Mr. Fox is worrying that his glory days are gone forever, the adolescent Ash is experiencing more than the normal amount of youthful angst trying to live up to his father’s legacy. His problem is further emphasized by the arrival of Ash’s cousin Kristofferson, who has come to stay with the family while his father battles a serious bout of double pneumonia. Kristofferson is a natural athlete, everything that Ash wants to be. Making matters worse, Mr. Fox is greatly impressed with Kristofferson’s skills and Ask only looks worse by comparison. Ash’s character is a careful balancing act. He remains sympathetic because of his relatable desire to win his father’s approval, despite the fact that he never actually say “I want my dad to say the things that he says about Kristofferson about me.” But he spend much of the movie taking out his frustrations on Kristofferson, even going so far as to tease him about his father’s illness. Part of what keeps Ash from being totally unlikable is that his relationship with Kristofferson gets better and worse throughout the course of the movie as Ash tries to figure out how to deal with his feelings of inadequacy. One of my favorite scenes comes early on, when Ash has to share hi room with Kristofferson. Ash continues to be nasty to his cousin, calling his sadness an act and refusing to give him a reasonable bed. Ash hears Kristofferson crying. He’s not so heartless as to continue being mean, but he doesn’t apologize or have a heart to heart with his cousin. It’s too early in the narrative for that. What he does instead is climb out of bed and turn on his toy train set. Without saying anything, the two foxes sit together and watch the train go around and around.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Fantastic Mr. Fox completely breaks the mold for animated films. It has talking animals. It’s based on a children’s book by a beloved author. It’s not even the triumphant return of puppet animation that Nightmare Before Christmas was back in the day. What it does do is remind viewers that animation can tell all kinds of stories, or at least provide fresh perspectives on the typical animated film subjects. It’s not quite like any other movie out there, animated or otherwise. Whether you’re like me and get excited by the possibility of animated film tackling every that live-action does, or you’re just looking for a fun, entertaining film that’s a little bit different, check out Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Trivia Time! This is a new idea I’m trying out to encourage you, dear readers, to participate. I’m going to ask you a question about the movie being discussed and you post your answers in the comments. If you don’t know the answer right away, you can search the internet. I won’t mind; you’ll still be learning something. The first person to respond with the correct answer will get a shout-out in the next article, along with a link to your personal website if you’d like. And of course, you’re welcome to comment whether or not you want to play the trivia game.

So here’s the question: There’s a song Fantastic Mr. Fox that’s a nod to another animated movie starring foxes. What’s the other movie and what’s the song?

Image in this article copyright Twentieth Century Fox.

Friday, December 18, 2009

R.I.P. Roy E. Disney

You've probably heard by now that Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt, passed away on December 16 at age 79. He is best remembered by animation fans as a champion of the art form who fought to keep traditional hand-drawn animation alive at Disney. I am glad to know that he lived long enough to see hand-drawn features return to Disney, a sentiment that has been expressed in many tributes to the man.

The obituary from the Los Angeles Times has a good overview of Roy Disney's life and accomplishments.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Book Review - June Foray's Autobiography


The title of the new autobiography of legendary voice actress June Foray is Did You Grow Up With Me, Too?, a question that I can readily answer “yes” to. Ms. Foray’s numerous voices are so ubiquitous throughout animation that I can’t say for certain where I first heard her. My parents tell me that the first movie I ever saw in theaters was Cinderella in which she provided the hisses and yowls for Lucifer the cat, so maybe that was it. But some of my clearest memories involving June Foray’s voice are of enjoying the adventures of Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose while visiting my grandparents. The first two words in the first chapter of Ms. Foray’s autobiography are “Springfield Massachusetts,” which is not only where June Foray grew up, but the location of my grandparent’s home where I curled up on the couch next to my grandma and watched Bullwinkle fail to pull a rabbit out of a hat. It was on that same couch that I watched a PBS special about Rocky and Bullwinkle and learned that there was a lady named June Foray who provided the voices for Rocky, the villainous Natasha Fatale, Dudley do-Right’s lady love Nell Fenwick a plethora of fairy godmothers, wicked witches, princesses, and countless other characters.

Chances are that you grew up with June Foray too, even if you don’t know it. Even if you somehow missed both Cinderella and the various incarnations of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s televised doings (Rocky and His Friends, The Bullwinkle Show, Adventures of Bullwinkle and Rocky, Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends), you have almost certainly encountered her voice before. Did you ever see virtually any Looney Tunes short, movie, or TV show where Tweety’s Granny was in the cast? That’s June. Ever watch Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck get menaced by one of two very different looking witches who are both, surprisingly, named Witch Hazel? June voiced them both. Did you spend Saturday mornings in the 80s watching Adventures of the Gummi Bears and DuckTales? June was Grammi Gummi and Magica DeSpell, among others. Did you play with Chatty Cathy, Mattel’s popular pull-string talking doll? June was the original voice. Were you seriously creeped out by Chatty Cathy after seeing the very similar Talky Tina on an episode of The Twilight Zone? June also. Ever go on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride? She’s in there too. I could easily go on, but you’d be reading credits all day and there’s still the book to get to.

My idea of what makes a good autobiography is much the same as my idea of what makes a good audio commentary on a DVD. I want to feel like I’m sitting down with someone and listening to that person’s first hand account of her or his life or work. The great strength of both autobiography and audio commentary is that the stories are coming directly from the people who lived them and, ideally, there’s no filter. They are free to talk about almost anything they wish to. Ms. Foray’s autobiography takes full advantage of this. Because the book is her story in her own words, she is able to relate whatever memories she feels are important for whatever reason, including moments that a biographer may have omitted because they seemed unimportant in the narrative of June Foray, voice actress. Her charm and personality come through in the writing, making the book a fun and engaging read.

The book starts off going chronologically, describing Foray’s childhood in Springfield, her family’s move to Los Angeles, and her early work in radio. But as Foray’s career starts to take shape, the chapters focus around her employment with different studios in various media: comedy records, dialogue looping for live-action films, and of course voice acting for animation, with whole sections devoted to her work and friendships with Chuck Jones and Jay Ward. (Foray is probably one of the only people – aside from maybe Sylvester Stallone – who can have a chapter in her autobiography called “My Rocky Life” that is about positive thing happening for her.) The format makes sense and plays well into the conversational feel of the book, but it can lead to some momentary confusion when Foray describes her first encounter with a fellow actor, then later recounts a story from before she had met him. But the confusion is fleeting and the separate focus on each stage of Foray’s career, even when they overlap in years, helps to put them in a much better context than time. Foray’s first meeting with Chuck Jones means much more when told as part of the story of their lifelong friendship than it would sandwiched in between all of the other work she was doing at the time she first met the legendary director.

I had plenty of reason to admire June Foray as a kid with an interest in animation and the people who make it happen. As an adult, I’ve found that I have even more reason to sing her praises. June Foray has long been a vocal champion of animation and had done much to increase the respect for the medium and recognition of the writers, artists, and actors who create animation in this country. I was very happy to find a chapter towards the end of the book that increased my knowledge of her work on this front. Foray was instrumental in making ASIFA-Hollywood into an organization active in encouraging and promoting the art of animation. The annual Annie Awards were her concept. While serving on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she has fought to keep both animated and live-action short films from being bumped from Oscar broadcast and campaigned for a Best Animated Feature Award, a dream that became reality in 2005. Her voice acting credits alone make Foray a bona fide star, but her dedication to animation and to shining the spotlight on its often unsung talents make her a true hero of the industry.

I guess my biggest problem with the book is that there isn’t more of it. I know that sounds like the lamest possible criticism, but that was my reaction. I started reading the book wondering how such a slim volume could possibly tell me everything about June Foray’s life that I could ever want to know. While the book is packed with all sorts of fascinating stories and does not suffer from any glaring omissions that I noticed, I still could have easily read many pages more about Foray and her work, about how she crafts a voice for a character, about the many amazing people she’s met who had such an influence on animation, and the kind of jokes that were cracked when the microphones were off. More specifically, I’d love to know if Foray ever got in hot water with Mattel for giving voice to The Twilight Zone’s considerably less benign version of the doll. I do know more about June Foray now than I did before reading the book, but I still wonder what more I might have learned had the book been two hundred, even three hundred pages long instead of just over one hundred sixty.

The last chapter before the epilogue is a collection of eulogies that Foray has given over the years, some for people she only met briefly, others for longtime friends. Reading through them, I was reminded of how every year we say goodbye to more people whose impact on animation will outlive them and more stories, more tricks of the trade, and more seemingly trivial little anecdotes go with them. Foray never mentions her own age (which you can look up for yourself if you want to, because I’m not risking her wrath), but Rocky first took flight fifty years ago and he was far from the first character June Foray gave voice to. So many of the original voices of Rocky's friends and foes have gone silent and I can only imagine what tales and memories they took with them. It's comforting to know that fans of June Foray who can't meet her in person for whatever reason will always have a way of knowing her better. Did You Grow Up With Me, Too? will be there for people who grew up with June Foray and kids who have yet to put a name to the voices in their favorite cartoons.

Did You Grow Up With Me, Too? is available at many fine bookstores and online retailers. But if you want an autographed copy like mine above, you'll want to order the book directly from her website.

UPDATE: Mark Evanier, who assisted Ms. Foray in writing her autobiography, has just stated on his website that time is running out to order and autographed copy of the book. The book will still be available to purchase, but once the last of the current stock of signed copies sell, you will have to track Ms. Foray down at a public appearance to get her autograph. So if you're thinking you'd like a signed copy of the book, now's the time to order.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Bluth Factor: The Land Before Time


After reviewing both Rock-A-Doodle and All Dogs Go To Heaven, I thought I kind of owed it to the Sullivan Bluth Studios to take a look at one of their more successful films. The Land Before Time, a tale of five young dinosaurs who set out in search of greener valleys, was one of Bluth’s biggest commercial successes. Despite mixed reaction from the critics, the movie performed well at the box office and furthered Bluth’s goal of providing meaningful competition for Disney. The Land Before Time was released the same weekend as Disney’s Oliver and Company and although the Disney film ultimately won the battle for gross domestic earnings, the Bluth movie had the more successful opening weekend and a higher worldwide gross. Over the years, the movie’s legacy has become somewhat muddied; it is the current reigning champion of direct to home market sequels with no less than twelve to its name, none of which had any involvement from the Sullivan Bluth crew. So twenty-one years after its original release, how does the original film hold up? Surprisingly well.

Littlefoot is a baby brontosaurus*. His family consists of two grandparents and his mother. With no father in sight and the elder dinos presumably past egg-laying age, Littlefoot is introduced by the narration as the tiny herd’s only hope for the future. (He is not the last of his kind, as Roger Ebert has mistakenly stated in both print and television reviews of the film, then pointing out the supposed inconsistency of the narration later claiming that many generations of descendants of all five dinos continued to thrive for years to come. The movie doesn’t go out of its way to make the distinction, but it’s bugged me for years that a famous film critic – for whom I otherwise have nothing but respect – somehow got this wrong when I understood it at age ten.) A food shortage has forced all of the dinosaur herds to travel in search of the legendary Great Valley, a place of abundant vegetation where no dino will ever go hungry again. Life soon becomes even more difficult for Littlefoot when an earthquake separates him from his grandparents and his mother is fatally injured (either by the earthquake or in protecting her son from the rampaging tyrannosaurus “Sharptooth;” the movie doesn’t make it clear which). The newly orphaned Littlefoot must lead his newfound friends – Cera, Ducky, Petrie, and Spike - to the Great Valley or face starvation as food grows more and more scarce,

Littlefoot may not be the most compelling protagonist ever, but he works for the purposes of this story. His plight is sympathetic and his performance – both vocal and visual – is convincingly childlike and appealing. His biggest heroic quality is his concern for the other dinosaurs, which is what keeps him going after he loses his mother and spurs on his progression not only towards the Great Valley, but also towards adulthood, the transition from being taken care of to taking care of others. He is persistent, good at coming up with a plan, and the only one of the dinosaurs who knows the way to the Great Valley, the last fact being chiefly responsible for his status as the group’s leader. The narration outright says at one point that the main reason that the other dinosaurs continue to follow Littlefoot after he is proven very wrong in his belief that Sharptooth is dead is that he is the only one who knows how to get to the Great Valley. This is odd, since the directions for reaching the Great Valley are essentially “go in one direction past two landmarks.” So if the other dinos really thought that Littlefoot was an incompetent leader, they could probably have learned the path to the valley for themselves and ditched him. But Littlefoot is a good leader, even if those qualities don’t come out until later on.

The dinosaurs who follow Littlefoot to the Great Valley mostly fall into the category of “comic relief,” with one exception. Duck the parasaurolophus and Petrie the pteranadon are both intended to provide lighter moments in the story. They are kind of the same character, both very high energy and very small. Ducky is more enthusiastic, ending a lot of her sentences with a happy “Yup, yup, yup.” She is the one character who occasionally becomes more irritating than adorable. Petrie is the more neurotic of the two, due largely to the fact that he cannot fly. Rounding out the comic characters is Spike the stegosaurus. Spike is basically a big puppy dog, mainly concerned with eating and sleeping. He is loyal and capable of helping out when the group needs some muscle, but he doesn’t speak and mostly does what the others tell him to do. The depiction of one of the little dinosaurs as more of a pet than a child doesn’t bother me as much as the same situation with a very similar character did in Disney’s Dinosaur, mostly because Spike is a newborn baby. Ducky discovers him as an egg about to hatch with no other dinosaurs around. So Spike’s limitations could be due to his extremely young age rather than his whole species operating on a lower level than most other dinosaurs.


Little Cera the triceratops is the remaining character in Littlefoot’s tiny herd. She is the “Grumpy” of the film and it’s not just because of her bad attitude. She has the strongest personality of any character in the movie and it gets her into nothing but trouble. She is proud, self-centered, overconfident, and even downright mean to Littlefoot, going so far as to insult his dead mother. Because of this, Cera is the only character who undergoes real change over the course of the film. Littlefoot may have to learn to survive without his mother and Petrie may need to figure out how to fly, but Cera must undergo an alteration of her personality, which includes one or two blows to her sizeable ego. Cera also serves as a good counterexample to Littlefoot’s good leadership. When she convinces the other dinosaurs to follow her down an easier path that Littlefoot insists is the wrong way, she fails to even notice when first Petrie, then Ducky and Spike fall behind and soon all find themselves in dire peril. This allows Littlefoot to be the hero and come to their rescue and Cera’s as well, after she runs into some unfriendly dinosaurs.

The rest of the cast is made up of very secondary characters. Littlefoot’s mother is exactly what you would expect her to be: loving, protective, and self-sacrificing. His grandparents barely have any lines and serve almost no purpose in the story beyond ensuring that Littlefoot will have someone waiting for him when he reaches the Great Valley. The menacing tyrannosaurus Sharptooth is less of a character than a monster. He never talks or shows any interest in anything besides attacking and devouring other dinosaurs.

Part of what keeps The Land Before Time on the right track is its simple, straightforward plot. Littlefoot’s goal is always to get to the Great Valley. He may have to accomplish additional tasks along the way: get his friends out of trouble, escape from Sharptooth, figure out how to go on without his mother, and so on. But from the minute that the food shortage is first mentioned, it’s completely clear that Littlefoot’s main job is to get from point A to point B. He and his friends may have a number of reasons for wanting to get to the Great Valley, reuniting with their families being a big one. But the main motivation for their journey remains as clear as their destination: if they do not make it to the Great Valley, they will die of starvation.


This may sound pretty grim, but the film actually does a good job of keeping its tone from becoming either too bleak or too light. The life or death nature of the dinosaurs’ plight is mostly confined to the narration. The characters talk about being hungry from time to time, but we never see them grow thin or weak from lack of food. On the flip side, the comedy of the movie is kept secondary to the main drama and the more comedic characters all have some part in the story beyond just providing laughs. The emotional touchstone of the film is, of course, the death of Littlefoot’s mother and aside from one cheeseball line of dialogue that threatens to break the mood (“Let your heart guide you. It whispers, so listen closely.”), it’s pretty effecting. Much of this is due to a very understated and sincere performance by then child actor Gabriel Damon. Littlefoot’s lines are appropriately childlike and his grief never becomes over the top. He insists to his mother that she can get up, but his tears and breaking voice suggest that deep down, he knows that she can’t and never will again.

I can remember print ads from when this movie was in theaters quoting a critic who dubbed the film “a prehistoric Bambi.” This wasn’t surprising; most animated films that feature a young animal whose mother dies are going to get compared to Bambi. What did surprise me seeing the film for the first time in years is just how much of the film is an homage to Bambi. While it doesn’t follow the exact same plot as the other film and there are also nods to other classic Disney movies – most obviously the “Rite of Spring” sequence from Fantasia, Bambi was clearly a big inspiration for the artists working on The Land Before Time. There are obvious echoes of big moments, like the death of Littlefoot’s mother and the shot moments before where Littlefoot is searching for her and calls out with dialogue very similar to Bambi’s in the analogous scene from that movie. There are smaller bits that feel very familiar, like the prehistoric creatures that crowd around to observe Littlefoot’s birth the way the woodland animals gathered to meet the newborn prince of the forest, the one visiting beast that looks into Littlefoot’s mouth as he yawns just like Thumper stole a glimpse at baby Bambi’s tonsils, and even the tiny pteradactyls fighting over a berry, which is reminiscent of two baby birds doing the same thing in Bambi. From time to time, a caught a subtle staging device that also seemed to be pulled from Bambi. When Littlefoot and Cera fight while the other dinosaurs watch, the shadows of the two combatants pass over the onlookers, much as the shadows of Bambi and rival buck Ronno fall over Faline while she watched them compete for her. Keep in mind that many of the artists working at Sullivan Bluth Studios at the time were people with a huge amount of respect for the older Disney films and in some cases, people who had left the Disney studio because they felt Disney was no longer making movies of that kind. In this case, the imitation of Bambi is definitely a very sincere form of flattery.


Since all of its protagonists are juvenile dinosaurs, the movie features a high level of cute. Littlefoot and his friends all have eyelashes and cute little round ears, which I kind of doubt are accurate to paleontologist’s view of what infant dinosaurs looked like. Cute is usually a matter of personal taste and in this case, I think the character designs generally stay on the right side of the line between “awww” inspiring and nausea inducing. What bugs me more than the characters’ eyelashes, rosy cheeks, and baby faces is their size. I’ve seen enough artist’s renderings, pseudo-documentaries, and actual fossils to know that baby dinosaurs were tiny in comparison to their gigantic parents. But Petrie is small enough to walk around atop Littlefoot’s head, Ducky is barely half his size, and Littlefoot himself is usually no bigger than his mother’s head. I say usually because there is some inconsistency in the film regarding the characters’ size relative to each other, other dinosaurs, and certain objects. I can understand the desire to make the main characters small to emphasize their vulnerability in the big savage world they must journey through. But all of them are so miniscule that I started to wonder whether the real reason the dinosaurs died out was because they kept accidentally stepping on their own young. Regardless, the artists at Sullivan Bluth Studios did some of their best work on this film, from the appealing scampering of the baby dinos to the huge and majestic adult dinosaurs to the world they all inhabit, at turns harsh and beautiful.


There’s an odd subplot to the film about the rather racist attitude the dinosaurs have towards each other. They tend to keep to their own kind, so much so that shortly after Littlefoot meets Cera for the first time, her father steps in and sternly informs the both of them that “three-horns don’t play with longnecks.” (The films has the dinos use cutesy descriptive terms to identify the various species.) It’s a message that Cera takes very much to heart. The weird thing is that Littlefoot’s own mother is equally in favor of this separation of the species, for no reason other than that it has always been that way. I’m not suggesting that the film implies that this is a good thing; far from it. Part of the point of the film is that Littlefoot bands together with four different dinos, all of different species, in order to find the Great Valley. But I feel like there’s a scene missing towards the end where the adult dinosaurs realize the error of their ways. I’m not asking for a big speech about the importance of dino diversity. I just think Cera’s father in particular should have a moment where he looks at his daughter happily playing with her new friends and realizes that she never could have made it back to her family if she hadn’t joined up with these four other dinosaurs with their various abilities that helped all of them to survive. Ducky’s parents do seem cool with the idea of adopting the evidently orphaned Spike, but since Daddy Topps was the big proponent of this faulty notion, I think he should have been made to see that he was wrong in the end. This part of the story was evidently more prominent in earlier drafts, to the point where the kid dinos initially didn’t get along and had to learn to do so. But in the final film, Cera is the only one who has this problem. The rest of the young dinosaurs are fast friends almost from the moment they meet.

The Land Before Time is not a musical. It’s a surprising choice given the success of Bluth’s previous feature An American Tail and its hit song “Somewhere Out There.” It may have been a decision by Bluth, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas – the last two being two of the film’s executive producers – or some combination of the three that singing dinosaurs would tax the audience’s suspension of disbelief a little too much. Or maybe Bluth, his co-producers Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, or some other member of Bluth’s team wanted to break out of the musical mold. Whatever the reasoning, the film features just one song. “If We Hold On Together” plays in instrumental form throughout the film, but is only heard with lyrics over the end credits, sung by none other than Diana Ross. It is a very pretty song, though it never achieved quite the success that “Somewhere Out There” did. The film’s score is by prolific composer James Horner, whose other screen credits include everything from Titanic to two of the Star Trek movies to Balto, and creates the right balance of emotion and whimsy.


If there’s one main problem that The Land Before Time suffers from, it’s the oddly disjointed feeling of the narrative. Some parts of the film feel more like isolated incidents that don’t quite connect up with the whole. The biggest comes towards the end when Littlefoot, just after leading his friends to a major victory, despairs of ever finding the Great Valley. There’s no transition between these two scenes to suggest why Littlefoot would feel this way after one of his biggest successes and as a result, the events seem strangely unconnected. This could possibly be the result of some of the scenes that were cut from the film. Bluth and Spielberg reportedly had some very different ideas about what this movie should be, some of which resulted in late changes to the film. About ten minutes of footage – mostly featuring the young heroes in danger and Sharptooth being scary – were cut to make the film less frightening for young viewers, leaving the film’s final running time at just over an hour. Including these missing scenes might have made for a smoother storyline, but since those scenes have never been shown to the public, I can only say that the end product has parts that never quite connect up.

The Land Before Time never reinvents the wheel, but perhaps that’s part of the reason why it was successful. The simplicity of the story actually becomes one of its strengths, helping the film to avoid the convoluted plots that caused trouble for many of Bluth’s later movie. By combining the talents of the studio’s artists with inspiration from classic animated films and tying it all to the kid-friendly hook of dinosaurs, Bluth succeeded in making a crowd-pleasing movie that, while not perfect, remains entertaining to watch.

*Yes, I know that technically he's an apatosaurus, but "brontosaurus" is still considered a legitimate generic term for any sauropod dinosaurs. And I just plain like it better. "Brontosarus" means "thunder lizard," which conjures up images of creatures so massive that their footfalls sounded like thunder. That is cool. Aside from lacking many of the hard consonants that make "brontosaurus" just plain sound cool, "Apatosaurus" means "deceptive lizard," a name derived from the fact that it's bones were easy to confuse with those of other dinosaurs. That is lame. So even if it's not technically correct, the ten year old in me is sticking with "brontosaurus."

All images in this article are copyright Universal Pictures.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Short, Of Sorts - Pixar's "George and A.J."

The week of Thanksgiving, with its feasts, visits from friends and relatives, and vacation time for my husband, has left me behind in my writing. I have a film review and a book review in the works, but for now, please enjoy my short comments on this short piece of animation.

Pixar’s George and A.J. was originally available as a special feature for customers who purchased Up through iTunes and has been making the rounds on the internet for about a week now, so perhaps you’ve already seen it. It’s a short cartoon about the two nurses who were supposed to take Up protagonist Carl Fredrickson to the Shady Oaks Retirement Village, only to be thwarted by Carl taking to the skies, house and all. The story shows the impact of Carl’s departure on George, A.J., and the local seniors.

As you may have noticed, this cartoon is pretty different from most of the other Pixar shorts like Partly Cloudy - the short that ran alongside Up in theaters, or Dug’s Special Mission - the short that debuted on the film’s DVD and Blu-ray release. It’s hand-drawn rather than computer animated. There is very little actual animation and no real lip-synch. And the voice cast is different. What’s going on here?

My theory, which a lot of animation fans seem to share, is that this “short” wasn’t really intended as a fully animated short, but an animatic. An animatic, also called a story reel or a Leica reel (after the German camera brand “Leica”), is a version of an animated film, short, TV show, or other project in which the storyboards are filmed and edited together to make a simple “rough draft” version of the final film. A “scratch” dialogue track will usually be recorded as well. This is a temporary version of all the dialogue in the film, usually acted by story artists or other people around the studio. The animatic is useful for showing interested parties how the film is shaping up and for checking to see how the story reads on film. Storyboards on their own can give the filmmakers some idea of what’s working and what isn’t, but an animatic can provide additional insight into how well the various ideas are working without the benefit of the story artist being there to pitch and explain them. Are the characters interesting? Is the story clear and easy to follow? Do the camera angles help to explain the action and emotion of the scene? Does he pacing of each scene work? Do some scenes go on too long or end too quickly? With the help of the animatic, these questions can be answered and chances can be made before the costly and time-consuming process of animation begins.

If George and A.J. is an animatic, it’s a very polished one. Most animatics are not in color, except for some special cases, such as when they are being used to pitch the idea to studio higher-ups. Computers have made it easier to depict important movements in animatics, allowing artists to move characters and objects around over a background or even create simple animations – usually just two or three drawings, without having to redraw the entire scene. Even so, George and A.J. features a lot more detailed motion than the average animatic, such as the way George and A.J.’s car tilts slightly as it comes to a stop or the motion graphics that lead in to the news story about Carl’s great escape. While I don’t know for certain, I suspect that some version of this animatic was used to pitch the idea for a short, but never got approved for full animation. Then when a bonus feature was needed for the iTunes release of Up, the animatic was pulled out, possibly reworked a little, and presented as a short cartoon.


Why wasn’t George and A.J. made into a fully animated short? I don’t really know. One possible reason is that the characters were thought to be too obscure. George and A.J. have just one brief scene in Up, while Dug – who stars in the short that was made for the film’s home release - is a very important character, as well as the most merchandised one from the film. It’s not clear whether George and A.J. would have been hand-drawn or computer animated had it been made as a full-fledged short. If computer animation was the ultimate goal, then maybe it would have been too expensive. Dug’s Special Mission uses existing character models and sets from Up. While some of the characters, props, and sets in George and A.J. could have been reused from up, the reporter, the various old folks, their houses, the cat lady’s cats, and all of their various methods of escape would have to be designed and built, costing both additional money and additional time that may not have been available. The Wikipedia article about the short points out a couple of inconsistencies between the short and the movie, though none of them are so crucial to the plot of the short that they could not have been altered. There could be any number of reasons why the short didn’t get further along in production, and unless Pixar decides to tell us, we may never know.

So now that we have an idea of why George and A.J. looks the way it does, the remaining question is “Does it hold up?” Can the appeal of the story and characters overcome the lack of Ed Asner and full animation? I think so. I really like the idea of Carl’s example inspiring other seniors to figure out ways to make their homes mobile and take off. It may not be very profound or even the best short Pixar has ever produced, but it has enough fun ideas to fill out its allotted time. My one wish is that there was some kind of clip of the director before the short explaining why it looks the way it does. I can make an educated guess, but I can’t help but worry that some people might be led to believe that Pixar just doesn’t know how to do hand-drawn animation or that this is an example of what it looks like when they “use their computers” to make traditional animation. That one gripe aside, George and A.J. is worth a look. It’s both and entertaining short film and an interesting look into one part of the animation process.

All images in this article are copyright Disney/Pixar.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Animation Techniques - Ink, Pixels, and Everything In Between

Animation has vert few limits. It can tell nearly any kind of story and depict nearly any kind of imagery. Similarly, almost any tool or medium that can be used to make a static work of art can also be used to create art that moves. There are many different kinds of animation techniques out there, some well known, some obscure. But to the average person, some of the terminology and concepts mentioned when talking about animation can get confusing. Which kinds of animation use computers? How can you animated with paint? What the heck is "Flash animation" anyway? In this article, we're going to be taking a closer look at some of the different kinds of animation. Some you may know well already. Other you may have never seen before. All have their particular strengths and weaknesses and the potential to become amazing animation in the hands of talented artists.

Hand-drawn animation

Hand-drawn animation, also called 2D animation, cel animation, or traditional animation, is one of the older animation techniques. A series of drawings, each one slightly different from the preceding drawing, are photographed one at a time onto film to create the illusion of movement. The name “cel animation” comes from the clear sheets of celluloid called “cels” that the final images of characters and other moving elements in a scene would be traced onto from the original drawings on paper for more studio productions. (Independent animators sometimes film their original pencil drawings rather than tracing them onto cels.) Because they were clear, cels could be laid over a background and other cels, preventing the artists from having to redraw the static parts of a scene, such as the background, over and over again. Later productions used sheets of acetate in place of celluloid, which was highly flammable and quick to decompose, but the term “cels” stuck. Most modern day productions of hand-drawn animation scan the artists’ drawings into computers, where they are colored and then composited together with the other elements in the scene.

Hand-drawn animation has been used in everything from features films to television show to advertising and beyond. Most Disney feature films are hand-drawn animation, including their upcoming feature The Princess and the Frog, seen above.

So is most anime, like Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away.

The majority of studio made shorts from the 20th century are hand-drawn, including the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes shorts:

Puppet Animation

Puppet Animation, also called stop-motion animation, is a very old technique. In puppet animation, the sets are sculpted or fabricated models, while the characters are articulated figures. Each puppet has an armature – a kind of metal skeleton which helps the puppet to keep its shape and the joints to both move easily and hold a position. Movement is created by shooting a frame of film, manipulating the puppet slightly, and shooting another frame. Puppet animation can be a very unforgiving technique, since it does not allow the animator to go back and correct mistakes. If a puppet falls over, or a light is in the wrong place, or the animation simply doesn’t look right, the whole shot has to be animated all over again from the beginning. One of the big benefits of puppet animation is that all the characters and sets are existing three dimensional objects. In hand-drawn animation, changing the camera angle during a scene requires making new drawings and usually background artwork. With puppet animation, changing the camera angle is often as simple as moving the camera. Animators don’t have to worry about characters looking consistent from scene to scene since they are filming the exact same puppets, or identical copies of one puppet made to allow multiple scenes to be shot at once or to ensure that if a puppet is damaged, a replacement is available.

Puppet animation used to be pretty common, especially on television. But when computer animation arrived on the scene and provided a way to get a similar dimensional look without some of the drawbacks of either puppet of clay animation, puppet animation wasn't used as much. But the medium still has its fans and proponents and puppet animated feature films continue to be released, like Fantastic Mr. Fox (shown above), due out in wide release this Wednesday.

The Nightmare Before Christmas helped to reinvigorate puppet animation and define it as the animation style for strange and quirky films:

Speaking of Christmas, most of the famous Rankin-Bass holiday specials are puppet animation:

Clay Animation

Clay Animation is a close relative of puppet animation, so much so that sometimes both are referred to as different forms of stop-motion animation. The technique is pretty much the same as puppet animation except that the figures are made of clay or a substance similar to clay. This makes the figures more malleable than those used in puppet animation. While puppet animation figures can generally only move where joints have been constructed into their armatures, every part of a clay animation model can theoretically be moved, squashed, stretched, or manipulated in any way imaginable.

Some of the best known clay animation comes from British studio Aardman Animations, home of Wallace and Gromit, seen above in a trailer for their 2005 movie Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

The long running television series Gumby, created by Art Clokey, used clay animation.

Like puppet animation, clay animation used to be a lot more common before computer animation came along. This advertisement by WIll Vinton Studios for the California Raisin Advisory board became immensely popular and lead to additional commercials, specials, a cel-animated TV series, and tons of merchandising.

Computer Animation

Computer Animation, sometimes called 3D animation or CGI – “computer generated imagery” animation, is a relatively new technique that has only become commercially viable in the past few decades. It’s sort of a digital version of puppet animation. Instead of existing in the real world, all of the characters, sets, and props are built inside of the computer by combining and manipulating simple polygons. The animators can then move various parts of the models to create the motions and expressions they want. In some cases, the animator can pick the start and end point for a movement and the computer can help to fill in the in-between frames. But it’s still up to the animator to decide on the speed of the movement, whether it becomes slower or faster or stays at the same rate, how long a pose or expression gets held, and numerous other decisions that can make the difference between mediocre animation and great animation. Computer animation may seem superior to either puppet or clay animation in that an animator can go back and correct one small mistake without having to re-animated the entire shot. But computers have their weak points. Certain textures and objects – like skin, hair, and clothing – have proven difficult for computers to replicate convincingly, though new technologies have helped to overcome many of these problems.. Computer can also produce bizarre mistakes or even crash, causing an animator to lose unsaved work.

Computer animation is very popular right now and can be seen all over the place. Above is a scene from Pixar's Toy Story, the first fully computer animated feature film. All of Pixar's movies are computer animated, including the upcoming third Toy Story film. DreamWorks Animation started off producing hand-drawn animated films, but now focuses exclusively on computer animation, like their next movie How To Train Your Dragon.

As computer animation has become less expensive to make, it's shown up more and more on television. The first fully computer animated TV series was Mainframe Entertainment's ReBoot. Shown here is the intro to a third season episode called "Firewall," parodying the openings of the James Bond films.

Flash Animation

Flash Animation is another one of the newer ways to animate and another technique that utilizes the computer. Flash animation is animation created using Adobe Flash (formerly Macromedia Flash) or a similar animation program. Basically, Flash allows animators to break down characters and other elements into numerous pieces. The face of a character animated in Flash may consist of the head, two separate eyes, a mouth, and maybe even separate hair. It’s sort of like hand-drawn animation with an infinite number of cels. Flash also lets the animator take these individual pieces and tilt them, flip them, deform them, change their size, or swap them out for different pieces. If the animator wants to tilt the character’s head to the side, he or she could group all of the pieces of the face together and rotate all of them to the desired angle. The program fills in the in-between steps based on where in the timeline the animator sets the start and end of the movement. Additionally, to make the character blink, the animator can swap the eyes out for a drawing or series of drawings of the characters eyes closing. These drawings can be saved to a library of different pieces that the animator can use again and again. So if the character blinks again, the animator can reuse the same drawing or drawings of the blink.

Flash was originally designed to create simple animations that could be viewed on the internet over the slow connections that were common at the time. Some of the earliest Flash animations used very simple limited animation, which kept the file size down. Since then, bandwidth has increased, allowing for longer and more complicated animations. The time saving features of Flash have also made it attractive for television animation production.

Above is the opening of the TV series ¡Mucha Lucha!, which was mong the first television show to be animated in Flash.

Flash is still used for web animations, which can be found all over the place. A couple of examples are the Homestar Runner cartoons, the extremely violent Happy Tree Friends, and the absurdist parody (of sorts) "Baman Piderman," seen below:

Cutout Animation

Cutout animation, also called cut-paper animation, is a technique in which the characters, props, and backgrounds are flat cutouts. They are usually made from paper, though some animations use cloth or photographs. By moving the cutouts a little at a time and shooting frames of film for each small movement, animation is created. Getting complicated movements requires many individual pieces. For a character to lift his or her arm, the arm needs to be at least one cutout piece separate from the body. If an object turns around, several different cutouts will be needed to show the object from different angles. Like puppet and clay animation, cutout animation does not allow the animator to go back and correct mistakes without re-animating the whole shot.

Computer programs like Flash have allowed animators to simulate the look of cutout animation while enjoying the benefits of animating on a computer, such as not having to keep track of potentially tiny pieces of paper and being able to alter a single frame of animation. The TV series South Park, for example, used actual cutout animation for its original shorts and pilot episodes, but then began using computer programs to achieve the same effect. Currently, the show is animated using Maya, a computer program generally used to create 3D computer animation. Though many animators like the advantages of using a computer to create animation which looks like cutouts, some still prefer the hands-on approach.

The example above is a Terry Gilliam animation from Monty Python's Flying Circus. Below is short clip from a much older example of cutout animation and the oldest known surviving surviving animated feature film: Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

Paint-on-Glass Animation

Watch Korova / The Cow by Alexander Petrov in Animation  |  View More Free Videos Online at

A less common animation technique, paint-on-glass animation involves the animator painting a scene on a piece of glass, shooting a frame of film, and then reworking the image slightly. Oil paints are most commonly used since they dry very slowly, though other types of paint can be mixed with different agents to give them this quality. This method requires the animator to erase and repaint parts of the image. For this reason, working with paint on glass can be very difficult. If the animator makes a mistake, not only is there no way to go back and fix the mistake, but much of the original image may be gone. With no clay, puppets, or cutout pieces to reposition, the animator must either start over completely or live with the mistake. But paint-on-glass can also be very beautiful, giving the look of a painting come to life like no other animation technique can.

Because of it's difficult and time consuming nature, paint-on-glass animation comes mostly from independent animators. The short above is called Korova - "The Cow" - by Alesandr Petrov, one of the masters of paint-on-glass. Caroline Leaf's film The Street uses the same technique, but a very different style:

Sand Animation

Another less common technique, sand animation is created by the animator making images with – you guessed it – sand. Like paint on glass, sand is not a forgiving medium in that once the sand is moved, it can never be put back exactly the way it was.

Some people will remember the animation above from Sesame Street. The short below is Atormenta by CESARLINGA Animations.

Sand animation has been getting some attention recently due to the sand artist who recently won the television talent competition Ukraine's Got Talent. While this technique is sometimes also called "sand animation," it is not really animation, since there is no illusion of movement created. The artist uses the sand to create images which are projected onto a large screen for the live audience. Despite not being animation, it is fascinating to watch and should give you some idea of the work that goes into making art with sand, whether static or animated.

This is by no means a complete list of every method of animation out there. There are many others, both old and new. Animators are always trying out new techniques or using old ones in ways never thought of before. Rhe medium of animation is always growing and changing.

If you have any questions, comments, or other animation techniques you would like to discuss, please share them in the comments section.

All videos are copyright their respective owners.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Bluth Factor: All Dogs Go To Heaven


Right up until the end, the late 1980s were a good time for Don Bluth. After the disappointing box office performance of The Secret of NIMH and some intriguing experiments in fully-animated video games that ran up against the collapse of the industry in the first half of the decade, Bluth partnered with businessman Morris Sullivan to form Sullivan Bluth Studios. The new studio had two bona fide successes under its belt with An American Tail and The Land Before Time. By the end of 1988, the studio was working on its next feature: All Dogs Go To Heaven. Unfortunately, All Dogs Go To Heaven marked the start of a slump for Sullivan Bluth Studios, in part because Bluth and crew’s desire to get Disney back to producing quality films by providing them with strong competition worked a little too well. The Land Before Time had proved to be a worthy opponent for Disney’s Oliver and Company released the same year, the latter outgrossing the former by only around $5 million. But the following year, Disney the sleeping giant was fully awake and quickly set about stepping on Sullivan Bluth and their latest film. Disney’s The Little Mermaid beat out All Dogs Go To Heaven both critically and commercially. The Bluth film made just $26 million dollars in its US release, compared to Mermaid’s roughly $84 million. It eventually recovered through strong video sales, but the damage was done. Investor Goldcrest Films seemed to have lost faith in Sullivan Bluth’s ability to deliver a crowd-pleasing movie, judging from the number of test screenings and last minute changes their next film was subjected to. That film turned out to be Rock-A-Doodle, which had even less success with critics and audiences than All Dogs Go To Heaven did, forcing the studio to declare bankruptcy.

If it hadn’t been for Disney’s successful return to the animated fairy tales that had made the studio famous, would All Dogs Go To Heaven have been a box office hit? My guess is no. While sharing its release day with The Little Mermaid may have drawn audiences away, All Dogs Go To Heaven had plenty of problems of its own. It’s a confusing, unattractive mess of a film that marked the beginning of a downturn for Bluth’s movies in quality as well as financial viability.

The film gets off to a confusing start, as dachshund Itchy tries to break his “boss” and best friend Charlie out from behind a pipe in an underground tunnel for reasons not immediately clear. The dogs get shot at by unseen assailants in the course of their jailbreak from what turns out to be the city pound. The upbeat music identifies the scene as comedy, the first of several that will treat life and death as laughing matters in a way that never quite works. Then the scene shifts to a grounded boat on the Louisiana bayou in the year 1939. The time and place have very little bearing on the story, so the bit of text identifying them is largely useless. The boat serves as a canine casino, where the patrons are watching a literal rat race and betting on the outcome. The race ends, the few winners claim their meager steak earnings, and the dogs complain that they’re being ripped off. About five minutes in, Charlie and Itchy make their appearance at the club and the threads of plot are slowly tied together.

Charlie is part-owner of the casino. He was on “death row” before Itchy helped him break out, but now he’s back, to the delight of the club’s patrons and the dismay of Charlie’s partner Carface. Carface wants the club to himself, so he decides to get rid of Charlie, permanently. For some reason, he first makes a show of convincing Charlie that he is still a wanted dog and that the first place “they” will look for him is at the casino, so Charlie should take his share of the steaks and set up shop elsewhere. He then takes Charlie to Mardi Gras (one of those few references to the story’s Louisiana setting), gets him drunk, has him blindfolded, and hits him with a car. Sound confusing? It is. We have no idea why Charlie was on “death row” or who “they” are who might come looking for him. The fact that he was at the pound seems to suggest that he was picked up by the local dogcatcher, but why would humans look for Charlie at a dog betting parlor they are presumably unaware of? Charlie claims he was “framed” for whatever his crime was, but we never learn if this is true, who might have framed him, or why. And why does Carface go through all the trouble of giving Charlie a big sendoff when his plan all along is to kill him? Who is Carface trying to fool?


Anyway, Charlie’s death takes place offscreen and we just see the car fly off a pier and into the water. (This scene and Charlie's later nightmare were trimmed down to ensure a "G" rating for the film.) Charlie zooms through some effects animation and is deposited at Heaven’s door. Because Charlie is a dog, he is assumed to be a good and loyal creature and therefore gets a free pass into Heaven. Finding his afterlife completely boring, Charlie manages to keep the canine angel who shows him around Heaven distracted long enough to wind the watch that represents his life and return to the mortal world. In another bit of unnecessary complication, Charlie enters Heaven wearing another watch that Carface gave him as a parting gift. The only difference between the two watches is that one hangs from a red band and the other has a blue band. There is a moment where Charlie exchanges one watch for the other, but since little effort is made to call the audience’s attention to the gesture, the whole thing is just confusing.

Alive once more, Charlie hooks back up with Itchy and starts plotting to take down Carface. He figures that his ex-partner must be running some kind of scheme for the club to have done so well while Charlie was doing time and goes to investigate. Carface does indeed have an ace up his sleeve in the form of a little human girl named Anne-Marie who can talk to animals. (The dogs can only understand other dogs.) Carface has her ask one of the rats which rat will be winning the next race and uses that information to fix the odds. Seeing his opportunity to both ruin Carface and enrich himself, Charlie “rescues” Anne-Marie. He spends most of the remainder of the movie using her pretty much the same way Carface did while trying to convince her – and possibly himself – that he isn’t.


The trouble with Charlie is that he neither particularly likeable nor very interesting. He is a scoundrel. His biggest ambition is to have his own casino and put Carface out of business and he’s perfectly willing to toy with Anne-Marie’s hopes and dreams to get what he wants. That would all be fine if Charlie had some hook that him interesting or admirable in spite of his questionable morals. But Charlie is not smart or charming or even ruthless enough to be compelling. He spends most of his time using Anne-Marie and berating Itchy, his only real friend in the world. He is not so clever in manipulating Anne-Marie that his intelligence becomes an admirable trait. Rather than carefully stringing her along, Charlie only does anything nice for Anne-Marie when she is obviously miserable or outright threatening to leave. I had mistakenly remembered that Charlie “reads” her “Robin Hood” (actually a copy of “War and Peace” held upside-down) as a bedtime story as part of a plan to convince her that he – unlike Carface – will be using at least some of the profits from gambling with her help to aid the poor. But actually, the idea of giving the money to the needy is something Charlie comes up with on the fly when Anne-Marie accuses him of being just like Carface and it is Anne-Marie who makes the connection to Robin Hood.

Charlie’s goals are all short-lived and largely uninteresting. He wants to break out of the pound and within minutes, he’s free. He barely spends five minutes in Heaven before escaping back to Earth. With Anne-Marie to help him sneak into the various human gambling venues and cheat, he’s soon financially well off and the proud owner of Charlie’s Place. (I can’t figure out why Charlie needs the money, since we see Itchy building their new casino out of scrap cars and it’s established that dogs use steaks as currency.) His real problem is that he is a self-centered jerk and for most of the movie, he makes zero progress on that. Nearly an hour into the film, Anne-Marie finds her way to the home and family she has always longed for. Despite the fact that he already has his casino up and running, Charlie callously uses her affection for him to lure her away. With just over fifteen minutes left in the film, Charlie is still acting totally in his own self-interest, with no regard for what’s best for little Anne-Marie. Because Charlie remains completely selfish for so long, Charlie’s change of character is crammed in at the end of the film rather than revealed gradually over time and feels much less genuine for it.


Anne-Marie, unfortunately, is just another cloyingly cute little kid manufactured for maximum amounts of adorable. She looks a lot like a very young Snow White. She is an orphan whose one wish is to have a mommy and daddy of her own. She is less annoying than Edmond from Rock-A-Doodle, mainly because she doesn’t have a lisp and isn’t the film’s lead. But like Edmond, she is too generic to be credible as a real character and not a plot device.

What’s particularly disappointing about All Dogs Go To Heaven is how unattractive the films is. There are some attractive backgrounds with a good amount of detail, but much of the film feels strangely oversaturated, featuring weird and unappealing color choices. As with Rock-A-Doodle the animators’ talents at creating convincing weight and appealing movement are still evident. The effects animations are particularly nice, from the streaks of light and bubble that accompany Charlie on his speedy trip to the hereafter to the soft fog on the docks. But the character designs are mostly sub-par, ranging from blankly cute to outright ugly. The weird Technicolor puppies who show up halfway through the film feel more like something from a mediocre Saturday morning cartoon than characters for a feature. And then you have this, which is supposed to be a horse, in case you couldn’t tell:


The film is a musical and features about five songs; seven if you count the ones that play over the credits. Sadly, there’s not a good number in the bunch. None of the songs are memorable or at all important to the story. The only one that comes close is “You Can’t Keep A Good Dog Down,” which introduces Charlie. It has some entertaining lines, but is hurt by the mediocre singing of Burt Reynolds – the voice of Charlie.


Probably the worst song in the film is “What’s Mine Is Yours,” in which selfish lout Charlie extols the virtues of sharing to the colorful puppies as they fight over the pizza he’s brought them. The song by itself is bad enough, but what really pushes it over the edge is how little sense it takes for Charlie to be singing about how “the more you share, the more the sun’ll shine.” Is he trying to convince Anne-Marie that he really is the generous individual he pretends to be? Does he want to impress Flo, the dog who takes care of the puppies and is a possible love interest for Charlie? Do puppies just bring out the Barney in him? The movie seems completely oblivious to the irony of Charlie trying to teach anyone how to share what they’ve got. The only humor in the song comes from the pups, who completely forget the lesson once the song ends and pounce on the cake Charlie offers them. The scene feels like a late addition, as if someone felt that the film needed a blatantly moral moment to balance out all the gambling and cheating that fill out the rest of it.


Story is the Achilles heel of many of the Bluth films and that’s true here as well. While making no progress on transforming Charlie from a self-centered creep to the good and loyal creature a dog is supposed to be, the plot meanders all over the place and gets stuck at a few dead ends along the way. The most well known of these is the infamous “Let’s Make Music Together” number, thanks to the Nostalgia Chick using it as the source for the term “Big-Lipped Alligator Moment,” meaning a scene that has virtually no set-up, makes no sense in the context of the movie, and is never mentioned again by any of the characters once it’s over. It’s a bizarre sequence in which Charlie and Anne-Marie are captured by a tribe of primitive sewer rats who try to feed them to the previously mentioned big-lipped alligator. The alligator becomes taken with Charlie’s evidently melodious howl and decides to sing a duet with him instead of eating him. True to the definition, neither Charlie nor Anne-Marie ever mentions this bit of weirdness again. Granted the alligator reappears later to save Charlie from drowning, but that doesn’t excuse the utter clumsiness with which the earlier scene is jammed into the plot. A scene that confuses the audience and only makes sense when a later scene makes an aspect of it useful is just bad storytelling.

The Big-Lipped Alligator moment isn’t the only confusing moment in the film. Earlier on, Carface is about to send his flunky Killer to sleep with the piranhas as punishment for letting Anne-Marie escape and end up in Charlie’s paws. He only spares his life when Killer tells him that he has “a Flash Gordon thermo-atomic ray gun” which they could use to take out Charlie. But all the two dogs actually accomplish is shooting up a fruit stand. Charlie does appear to be hit a few times, but he’s fine, presumably thank to the watch. Why does Killer have a ray gun? Did ray guns exist in 1939 Louisiana? Why does Carface feel the need to use a special weapon to dispatch Charlie? What is the point of this plot thread?

(Author's Note: After writing this, I came across this article, which offers some explanation for the baffling "Flash Gordon thermo-atomic ray gun sequence. Originally, Carface and Killer were going to go after Charlie with a much less futuristic tommy gun. But partway through the film's production, there was a shooting at a California school in which automatic weapons were involved. Though they aren't mentioned as a specific influence on the changes to this scene, the need to get the film a "G' rating and the tragic death of Judith Barsi, the young actress who played Anne-Marie who was killed along with her parents in a murder-suicide, may have been factors in wanting to remove scenes of more realistic violence from the movie. So "tommy gun" was changed to "ray gun." It explains some of the thinking, but does not excuse the overall oddness and pointlessness of the scene.)

All through the movie, there is evidence of ideas that just haven’t been thought out well. Why does Anne-Marie go for shopping for the new dresses that cynical Charlie claims will make her more appealing to potential parents, only to spend the rest of the movie wearing her same old tattered clothes? Why bother to introduce the cute puppies and Flo and have a lengthy sequence in which Anne-Marie imagines life with new parents who adopt her, Flo, and all the puppies, and then leave their future completely unresolved? Why does Charlie still need Anne-Marie and her talents even after his casino opens? (The implication is that Charlie only uses Anne-Marie to cheat when gambling against other humans, unlike Carface who used her to cheat his own canine customers, though it’s never really clear.) How can Charlie understand the big-lipped alligator when he can’t understand any other non-canine creature in the film? Why do all the dogs in the city care enough about Charlie to rush to his aide when they hear he’s in trouble? Why do some dogs where clothes while others don’t?


Like The Secret of NIMH, All Dogs Go To Heaven has problems balancing its comedy and drama and making it all feel like one cohesive whole. The movie’s message is that the duration of your life is less important than the good you do with the time you have, and in that context, I guess it makes sense that so many of Charlie’s brushes with death are treated as comedy. But there’s a shadow over Charlie’s return to the land of the living. See, when Charlie left Heaven, he voided the free pass to the pearly gates that he got for being born a dog. He can’t get back into Heaven. In theory he could just keep winding the watch and live forever. But should the watch ever stop, Charlie will die. And if he does die and he can’t go to Heaven, there’s only one option left: Hell. And not a funny, cartoonish Hell full of punishments that only a dog would find horrifying. The Hell revealed in Charlie’s nightmare is a full-on fire and brimstone world of torment that ranks among Bluth’s scariest scenes. I’m not one to say that movies aimed at kids should be completely devoid of anything frightening. The dark edge in Bluth’s films is frequently one of the more interesting aspects of his work. And it too makes a degree of sense. If Charlie being unable to return to Heaven is to mean anything, there has to be a consequence. And since Charlie found Heaven boring, the only possible consequence left is the knowledge that if Charlie dies, he will end up in Hell. But put the comedy and the drama together, and it all falls apart. It just doesn’t make sense to ask the audience to laugh when Charlie almost dies while at the same time telling them that the afterlife awaiting him is one of eternal suffering.


Perhaps the worst failure of story, even worse than the Big-Lipped Alligator Moment, is the movie’s climax, which takes place in the sinking burning hull of Carface’s boat casino. It starts out well enough. The watch serves its narrative purpose, forcing Charlie to choose between retrieving it and saving his own life or rescuing the unconscious Anne-Marie from drowning. But then, instead of seeing the rescue of Anne-Marie through to the end, Charlie sets her on a wooden plank and pushes her towards a hole in the side of the boat that is surrounded by flames. As if to underline the precarious position he had left her in, Charlie yells “You can make it, kid!” after her. Did I mention that Anne-Marie is barely conscious at this point? So Charlie spends his final seconds of life not braving flames and waves to make sure Anne-Marie gets to safety, but diving after his watch, leaving Killer – of all possible characters - to steer Anne-Marie to shore where her future family is waiting. That’s it? That’s Charlie’s act of redemption? As with the Big-Lipped Alligator Moment, Killer’s ray gun, and the sharing song, it feels like someone with a little distance from the movie needed to come in, take a look at the story, and say “This is supposed to be Charlie’s big moment of truth, but you’ve got him shoving the kid out the door and going after the watch again. Maybe this would work better if he stayed with her longer, just long enough so that we know that he’s making sure she’s safe before he thinks about saving himself.”

All Dogs Go To Heaven is just problems on top of problems. It has a protagonist who is both unlikable and uninteresting, a plot that spends more time on pointless diversion than getting the main character from point A to point B, ugly character designs, and awful songs. It’s worth a watch only if you’re a die-hard Bluth fan or particularly interested in the history of U.S. theatrical animation. On its own merits, this movie is anything but heavenly.

All images in this article are copyright MGM/UA.