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.

1 comment:

  1. thanx for the review, i still liked the movie a lot when i saw it as a kid