Monday, September 7, 2009

The Bluth Factor: Rock-a-Doodle


After my animated movies meme post went up, I got an e-mail from my dad. He mostly wanted to share his reactions to recent animated films he had enjoyed, such as The Incredibles, The Triplets of Belleville, and WALL-E - which Dad thinks should have won Best Picture. (Have I mentioned that I love my dad?) But it wasn’t all praise. Dad also wanted to chide me for awakening his long dormant and thoroughly unpleasant memory of seeing Don Bluth’s Rock-a-Doodle, a movie which he now remembers as being “god awful.”

I’m making it up to Dad by loaning him a couple of Miyazaki films he hasn’t seen yet. But after reading his e-mail, I immediately decided that I had to rewatch Rock-a-Doodle and write about my impressions. This proved more difficult than I had anticipated. Netflix does not actually have any copies of the film. Pretty much all of my local DVD rental stores have gone out of business. So with no other options, I became the cautiously proud owner of a used collection of The Secret of NIMH, Rock-a-Doodle, and All Dogs Go To Heaven. which may be the subject of a future article.

Despite Dad’s strongly negative memories of the film and my own vague recollections of it being less than stellar, I tried to watch it with an open mind. True, I could remember that it was my disappointment with this film that caused me to swear off any animated films that did not bear the Disney name. (It was not a bad strategy at the time, but I clung to it for far too long afterwards.) But I hadn’t seen it in over fifteen years. Had my father and I been unfair? Was this movie actually a flawed gem like NIMH? Or was it really the cinematic disaster that my dad remembered it as?

The short answer? Dad was right.


Rock-a-Doodle kicks off with the story of Chanticleer, who gets his name from the character in the Reynard the Fox fables and in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Chanticleer is a rooster with an appearance and voice reminiscent of Elvis Presley. (His vocals are provided by country singer Glen Campbell, Elvis having left the building over a decade before.) All of the farm animals believe that Chanticleer’s crow is what makes the sun rise, until one morning when Chanticleer misses his morning crow and the sun comes up regardless. Chanticleer’s barnyard pals mock him and label him a fraud and the crestfallen rooster leaves for the city, where he becomes a singing sensation known as “The King.”

Chanticleer could be an interesting character. He has a relatable problem: he believes his friends don’t care about him anymore and that the talent that made him special may have never even been real. His similarities to Elvis could have made for some entertaining and funny moments, but despite a title and movie poster than feature him prominently, Chanticleer is not the protagonist of Rock-a-Doodle. He is more an object of pursuit. The good guys want to bring him back to the farm and the bad guys want to prevent him from returning to the farm. Because as it turns out, Chanticleer’s crow really did keep the sun shining and the farm has been plagued with torrential rainstorms ever since he left. Realizing that they’re up a dell without a pitchfork, the farm animals set out to find Chanticleer and get him to come home, which takes up the majority of the movie. Chanticleer may be the guy with the power to solve the movie’s central problem, but he has so little screen time and character development that his role is almost reduced to that of the story’s Macguffin, more of a problem-solving device than a true character.


The movie’s actual protagonist is a little live-action boy named Edmond. Edmond lives on a live-action farm filmed with bad lighting and shaky camera work. Coincidentally, Edmond’s farm is also plagued by constant rain and his mother is trying to comfort him by reading him the story of Chanticleer. There is very little to like about the live-action segments of the film. As I said, they aren’t shot very well and the scenes that mix live-action and animation never look convincing, all the more disappointing when you consider that Who Framed Roger Rabbit premiered about three years earlier. The actors who play Edmond’s family turn in mediocre performances. And Edmond, sadly, ends up being one of the film’s biggest weaknesses.

The problem with Edmond is that the film makes him such a little “everyboy” that there is nothing distinctive or interesting about him. We don’t know if he likes to play sports or draw or ride horses, whether he is smart or gentle or kind or helpful. His main feature is that he’s cute and even that is a matter of opinion. For me, there is a very fine line between a character being genuinely cute and being an unnatural, fake attempt at cute, especially when the character is a little kid. The characters that I find cute are cute because they behave in a way that is both appealing and very specific to who they are. In the best cases, the character will do something that strikes me as exactly how a young child would act in that situation. This is not the case with Edmond. Edmond is the result of a child actor and a team of animators trying to hit all of the easiest stereotypical indicators for what is “cute.” Edmond has a cute little lisp (though I know I’m not the only person who finds his speech impediment more annoying than adorable). He gets turned into a cute little animated kitten. He has cute little fears and a cute habit of protesting that he isn’t afraid of anything. His supposed problem is that his family think he is too little to help protect the farm from the storm, a very child-specific, “cute” problem. All of this might add up to adorable for some viewers, but I find it about as authentic as Edmond’s pouty insistence “I am…too one of the big boys!”, the pause giving him time to set his book down on his lap on the word “too” for emphasis. Like the entire performance, it feels staged, not real.

Because Edmond’s character is so unspecific, his problems and the skills he has to combat them are equally vague. Edmond’s main problem is the story’s main problem: the storm that threatens Edmond’s farm and Chanticleer’s farm. But the personal issues that Edmond must overcome are not as evident. If they didn’t exist, that would be one thing. Not every good story has to feature a main character with problems within and without. But the movie keeps hinting that Edmond does have a personal goal that he must reach. It just never makes it clear exactly what that goal might be. Does Edmond want to overcome his various fears? To stop believing that he is too small to do anything important? To win the respect of his family? I don’t know and I’m not sure the movie does either. Instead of seeing Edmond gradually move past his mental roadblocks or have a revelation on how to get past them, the audience gets a confusing scene where Edmond retreats into a mental realm, complete with brain columns and nerves strewn about, where he is haunted by faces and voices from the past hour or so (including his own voice declaring “I’m not afraid of anything.”) Edmond yells “No!” and suddenly emerges with the mental strength to turn the car he’s riding in around and go back to rescue one of his animal pals. It is a confusing and awkward metaphor for Edmond conquering his fears, fears that remain unclear.


OK, so the movie has a powerful character who is not the protagonist and is more of a secret weapon than a personality, and a protagonist who is all but devoid of individuality or special strengths. Edmond can fold a paper airplane, knows where the city is, and maintains an undying faith in Chanticleer, which is all the stranger considering that it’s based on the first few pages of a story that – judging from the way Edmond points to a picture of the villain if the tale and asks his mother who that is – he has never heard before. One of the movie’s problems is the lack of any relationship between its two most important characters. In fact when the two finally meet, about ten minutes before the end of the film, a confused Chanticleer asks Edmond “Well who are you?” The result is that the movie feels like two stories loosely connected by a group of farm animals. Chanticleer’s story, which seems like it would be the more interesting of the two, ends up getting squeezed to the point where one of the character’s major problems – the fact that he no longer has the self-confidence to crow – doesn’t come up until mere minutes before it is resolved. Instead of focusing on Chanticleer’s loneliness and lack of confidence in spite of living the life of a famous rock star, the film centers on Edmond and his ill-defined issues. Despite some attempts to draw parallels between their problems, including a scene where Chanticleer is also haunted by voices from his past, Edmond and Chanticleer just don’t feel connected. The movie pushes aside its strongest character to make room for a weaker one.

Edmond’s lack of any real power or skills makes creating a satisfying narrative difficult, but not impossible. There certainly have been films where the protagonist is neither the hero not a terribly strong character, Disney’s earlier “princess” films among them. But these films made up for their passive protagonists by populating the movie with strong and interesting supporting characters who could drive the plot while leaving the protagonist free to wish and hope and dream. But Edmond is not just the protagonist of Rock-a-Doodle; he is also supposed to be the hero. That means that virtually every other character in the movie has to be less capable than Edmond, and you can just imagine how much fun that’s going to be.


After the Grand Duke – the villain from the Chanticleer story - shows up in the live-action world and transforms him into an animated kitten, Edmond meets up with the animals from Chanticleer’s farm. Chief among them is Patou, the old farm dog. Patou is voiced by Phil Harris, who also voiced Baloo from The Jungle Book as well as a couple of other Disney characters. Casting Harris feels very much like an attempt to connect Rock-a-Doodle to the classic Disney films. The name “Patou” even sounds a bit like “Baloo.” But unfortunately, the man who helped to transform what was originally a bit-player bear into the heart and soul of The Jungle Book could not do the same for Patou the dog. It’s not that there’s really anything wrong with Harris’s performance, there just isn’t enough meat to the role. Patou begins the movie by telling the audience that this is a story from “back before I knew how to tie my shoes,” which sounds like a folksy way of saying “when I was young.” But Patou is a pucker-faced old dog when we meet him. The bit about not knowing how to tie his shoes? That’s actually Patou’s entire shtick. Patou is a dog who doesn’t know how to tie his shoes. It’s never presented as a metaphor for anything, given any emotional weight, or made to have any bearing whatsoever on the plot. Patou claims towards the beginning of the movie that he could have attacked the Grand Duke more effectively if his shoes had been tied, but since he doesn’t trip over the laces or anything and actually quite successful in saving Edmond from the Duke, we don’t have any reason to believe that this is true. Patou also gets tied up in his shoelaces towards the end of the film. But that’s it. Since Patou being unable to tie his shoes has no obvious effect on anything, there is no real reason why we should care whether he learns to tie them or not. Why is this detail in the movie at all? Well, Edmond knows how to tie shoes and if Edmond is going to have a prayer of coming across as the hero of this picture, he needs every chance he can get to show why the other characters need him around.

Oh and were you, like Edmond, wondering why Patou wears shoes to begin with? Is it because some of the other animals also have shoes? No. Is it because he’s already wearing pants and socks and shoes just complete the look? No. Patou wears shoes because Patou has bunions, lots and lots of bunions. The shoes help his feet feel better. There, now aren’t you sorry you asked?

Patou also serves as the movie’s narrator, a role that I’m guessing he was given to make sure that the littlest members of the audience didn’t get lost while trying to follow the story. Patou doesn’t just tell the story of Chanticleer and how he ended up leaving the farm; he pops up throughout the film to explain what’s happening. His comments range from obvious to confusing to spoilers within the movie itself. Why for example, when we can clearly see Chanticleer performing on stage in front of throngs of screaming fans, do we need Patou to interrupt the song to inform us that “Chanticleer had become a star”? I still can’t figure out why Patou feels the need to tell us that Chanticleer “maybe wasn’t the smartest bird that ever lived” when Chanticleer never does anything to suggest that he is all that much dumber than the rest of the cast. Patou’s introduction of Goldie, the pheasant chorus girl who becomes Chanticleer’s love interest, is particularly over-informative. Patou not only tells us that Goldie is jealous of “King” Chanticleer’s meteoric rise to fame, but also goes on to make sure we know that Goldie will turn out to be a lot nicer (which we can see for ourselves later on) and smarter (which is never particularly evident) than she initially seems. The impression that I get from the narration is that I am watching a movie that could not be trusted to tell its own story without having one of the characters constantly stepping in to explain everything.


Heading up the movie’s bad guys is the Grand Duke, the leader of the photophobic owls who have been troubling the farm animals ever since the sun stopped shining. It was actually the Duke who caused Chanticleer’s departure in the first place by sending another rooster to stop Chanticleer from crowing. The rooster calls Chanticleer out for a fight, tussles with him briefly, and is never seen again. Why a rooster? Why not an owl who might actually show up again, since the fight takes place just before dawn? Beats me. Anyway, the fight is what causes Chanticleer to miss his regularly scheduled crowing, which leads to the sun coming up without him. In an incredible stroke of good luck for the Duke, once Chanticleer leaves and ceases crowing, the sun stops shining. The whole “rising when Chanticleer didn’t crow” thing was evidently a one-time snafu. As Patou puts it, the sun “took a look around and decided to go back to sleep.“ I consider this a happy accident for the Duke because I can’t see how the Duke could possibly plan for the sun to rise once without Chanticleer crowing, the other animals to mock Chanticleer, Chanticleer to leave the farm, and the sun to cease shining after that.

The Duke is not a terribly frightening villain to anyone over the age of four. He’s just a pudgy old owl who’s too busy mugging for the camera and enjoying his own sarcastic humor to be truly scary. The Great Owl in NIMH - a supposed “good guy” – is far more terrifying. The one thing the Duke has that makes him a real threat is magic and even that he uses mostly to do things that aren’t really scary, like growing very big or turning Edmond into a kitten or hitting Chanticleer over the head with a magic mallet. In spite of this, test audiences apparently found the red smoke that the Duke emits from his mouth to perform magic too frightening, so in the final film, the smoke is dotted with fluorescent Lucky Charms. (I picked up a copy of Jerry’s Beck’sThe Animated Movie Guide and found that he compared the stars, moons, planet and other symbols that accompany the Duke’s magic smoke to the exact same sugary cereal.) He still maintains a creepy expression in a few shots where he breaths out smoke and he does manage to strangle Edmond before the end of the film, though to some viewers, that may make him more sympathetic than frightening. But for the most part, the Duke is reduced to putting his face very close to the camera in an attempt to elicit the occasional scare.


The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better than the major players. Edmond has two other animal pals aside from Patou who join him in the search for Chanticleer: Peepers the brainy mouse and Snipes the annoying magpie. Peepers is smart, which for the purposes of this film means that she knows how to drive a car, can pilot a helicopter, uses the occasional big word, and wears glasses. What she can’t do is lead the animals to the city, because then Edmond would have nothing useful to do. The movie tries to develop some kind of particular relationship between Edmond and Peepers. It seems like a good idea: Edmond lacks self-confidence (I think) and is feeling even less capable now that he’s been turned into a little kitten, while Peepers is smaller than Edmond but has no doubt about her ability to do whatever she needs to. And they both have lisps, though hers – provided by the voice of Vixey from Disney’s The Fox and the Hound, Sandy Duncan - is less annoying. But their friendship never develops beyond Edmond whining that he’s too little to do something, Peepers pointing out that she’s not too little, and Edmond going ahead and accomplishing his task without any kind of buildup or struggle. And the speech impediment connection is never mentioned. Snipes the magpie is not so much a character as an assortment of quirks, with a new one tossed in whenever the movie requires something funny to happen. In one scene, he’s suffering from claustrophobia. In the next, he’s gushing about his love of food. The problem is that none of these traits ever gel into anything that feels like a fully realized character. His one consistent trait is that he’s kind of a jerk. He’s the only one of the three animals who accompany Edmond who is actually shown making fun of Chanticleer when the sun comes up before the rooster has crowed. He’s also constantly bickering with Peepers, though we never know why, making their eventually reconciliation a hollow one. Snipes never contributes a thing to the plot. His role is strictly comic relief and since he’s not particularly funny either, he could have easily been cut from the movie altogether.


The Grand Duke has his own entourage to combat Edmond’s scrappy band of critters. . Pinky the fox serves as Chanticleer’s Colonel Tom Parker and is also working for the Grand Duke, though I can’t figure out how the business relationship benefits either of them until the plot makes it necessary for them to know each other. If the Duke really wants to ensure that Chanticleer never crows again, wouldn’t he want his henchmen to focus on killing Chanticleer rather than turning him into a successful singer? And what does Pinky need from the Duke when he has Chanticleer to help him rake in profits? Closer to home, the Duke is in command of of several anonymous owls who are little more than his chorus and his diminutive nephew Hunch, a completely incompetent little owl with a habit of spouting “a” words ending in “-ation”: “annihilation,” “abomination,” “aggravation.” This is – needless to say – not funny, nor does it make an ounce of sense. There is a potentially amusing gag where the smoke from the Grand Duke’s mouth changes Hunch into different creatures whenever the Duke gets angry with him, but since it is only used twice and one of the form Hunch ends up with looks like some bizarre cross between an owl and a pickle, the opportunity for comedy is wasted.


You would think that a movie about a rooster who looks and sounds like Elvis would be a great musical just waiting to happen. Rock-a-Doodle gets off to a good start in this department with a pleasant little song called “Sun Do Shine” that introduces us to Chanticleer and his barnyard buddies. With no fewer than twelve songs in the film – thirteen if you count the reprise of “Sun Do Shine” at the end – you would probably expect to hear a lot of Glen Campbell crooning like the King. But that’s actually not the case. Only half of the film’s songs are sung by Chanticleer and of those, there are only three which can really be counted as complete songs. In addition to “Sun Do Shine,” Chanticleer performs the film’s title song and “Treasure Huntin’ Fever.” Neither are great and the latter suffers from such clunky lyrics as “I got treasure-huntin’ fever for love,” but they do make for some of the movie’s better set pieces. Aside from that, you get one Chanticleer song that is cut off just a few lines in and two that are sung in their entirety, but are all but impossible to hear all the way through. Why? Because Patou talks over all of one and much of the other. “Come Back To You” sounds like a genuinely pretty song, but I can’t say for certain because I can only hear a few snippets behind Patou’s gabbing. “Kiss ‘N’ Coo,” Chanticleer and Goldie’s love duet, has the added distraction of Edmond and his friends watching the pair from a far and discussing their situation, drowning out most of the music that Patou hasn’t already talked over.

Most of the remaining songs are short little ditties, lasting a minute or less. Since they are so brief, they do very little to enhance the film and offer virtually no new information. The Grand Duke and his owls get three awful songs including one where the lyrics are literally “Tweedle-lee-dee, tweedle-lee-dee. They’re running out of batteries.” Perhaps the theory was that if the villains’ songs were terrible, Chanticleer’s would sound that much better. But all it does is bog down the film with yet more pointless musical numbers that are outright bad to boot. Poor Goldie only gets to sing two lines of her solo number before it gets cut off. I’m not sure if the decision was made to avoid having three songs right in a row or to cut down on Goldie’s screen time. Another complaint about early cuts of the film from test audiences was that Goldie was too shapely and seductive looking for a character in a kiddie flick. Since the animators had to go back in and tone down her figure and costume, cutting her song may have been a way of saving them some extra work. Chanticleer’s bouncers have an utterly pointless song. And over the end credits, Patou gets a song about – what else? – tying his shoes.

I certainly don’t believe that animated films have to be musicals. But Rock-a-Doodle seems tailor-made for the musical format, which is why it’s so puzzling that most of the songs are treated like an expendable afterthought. Few of them do anything to advance the story, highlight character emotions, or serve any purpose other than taking up space. Though it is baffling why so little care was put into fitting the songs into the movie, it is understandable why so many of the resulting songs were reduced to background music or all but cut from the film.

I think what surprised me most about this movie is how outright dull it is. Oh sure, there are action scenes and chases and the like. And the animators still know how to pull off some visual excitement here and there. The “Rock-a-Doodle” musical number has some fun with Chanticleer performing atop a giant record player and there’s an entertaining shot where the camera goes through the hole in the center of a record that Pinky is spray-painting gold back to Chanticleer’s performance. The opening shot in the movie has the camera dropping down from above the crowds, racing between haystacks and cornstalks and up a hillside before finally coming to rest on Chanticleer’s face as he crows. It’s technically impressive, but I still can’t shake the feeling that something has been lost between Bluth’s earlier films and this one. Maybe there wasn’t enough time, enough money, or enough enthusiasm, but I just don’t see the little extra flourishes that made NIMH such a visual treat. The character designs are frequently unappealing and the colors often read as garish, a far cry from the subtle tones and dozens palettes per character of Bluth movies past. Stronger visuals may not have saved the film from its story problems, but it would have at least made it fun to look at.


I realize I am not the target audience for this movie and I probably wasn’t when this movie first came out either. The story seems designed to appeal to the ten and under set, if not an even younger age range. So is it really fair of me to be so critical of a film that is not really aimed at me? I think so. Some of my very favorite animated films are ostensibly intended for children or “families,” and yet I keep coming back to them as an adult and enjoying them. Nostalgia is probably a part of it, but the best of them are the ones that continue to entertain or amaze me as an adult, whether through visual from animators who were among the best in the business or stories that still hold up even though I’ve grown older. Of course I realize that a lot of animated films I watch will include the requisite happy ending. But that’s where the ideas of suspension of disbelief and the journey being more important than the destination come in. Even if I know on some level that a particular character is probably not going to die or fail to get from point A to point B, I can still be convinced to care about the story if the film can convince me to care about the character and what he or she is experiencing and feeling while getting from point A to point B. Unfortunately, Rock-a-Doodle never convinced me to care about its characters and I ended up way ahead of the movie, well aware that Chanticleer would get back to the farm and crow, the sun would come up again, the owls wouldn’t eat all those cute little farm animals, and Edmond would neither die nor live out his days as a cat. Not only did I know these things would happen, I didn’t really care. It doesn’t matter to me that Goldie comes to live on the farm with Chanticleer when most of her character is explained through Patou’s narration and never advances beyond “stereotypical blonde airhead.” It doesn’t matter to me that Peepers and Snipes become friends because I never knew why they didn’t like each other to begin with. And it certainly never mattered to me whether or not Patou learned to tie his shoes.

It is possible that children could enjoy Rock-a-Doodle, but I see no reason to show it to them. Kids are no less deserving of intelligent movies with well thought out stories and interesting characters as adults are. To simply forgive the flaws in Rock-a-Doodle - as I have seen some of the film’s defenders do – on the grounds that it’s a movie for kids and kids don’t care about plotholes or story structure is both selling kids short and delivering a slap in the face to every movie that is well crafted and enjoyable for kids and adults alike. As my dad helpfully pointed out, parents have to watch these movies too and the films that can truly entertain viewers of every age have a much better chance of becoming beloved classic that can be revisited again and again. The truly sad thing is that Bluth and the animators who worked with him didn’t set out with the intention to make movies for little kids and little kids only. They wanted to bring back the artistry of the older Disney films while simultaneously taking on darker themes that could potentially make animation palatable to an older audience again. Unfortunately, Rock-a-Doodle accomplishes neither of these goals and is one forgotten film that is best left that way.

All images in this article are copyright MGM.

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