Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Director Report Card: Don Bluth (1989)

4. All Dogs Go to Heaven

Following their disagreements during the production of “The Land Before Time,” Don Bluth and his team ended their association with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin. The animation company moved to a high-tech studio in Ireland. With funding from Goldcrest Films and a distribution deal with MGM/United Artists, Bluth went to work on a new film. “All Dogs Go to Heaven” was based off an idea the director had been thinking about since “The Secret of NIMH” and was originally conceived as an anthology film. The resulting film wouldn’t be as successful as the director’s previous works, though it found an audience in time. Mostly, “All Dogs Go to Heaven” is notable for being kind of weird. The movie’s mixture of cartoon animals, cute humor, darker content, and heavy thematic ideas makes for a very strange creature indeed.

Set in the late 1930s, the film follows Charlie and Itchy, two dogs trying to make it in this crazy world. After escaping prison in the opening scene, the two return to their old hideout, a casino run by dog gangster Carface. Annoyed by his sudden reappearance, Carface has Charlie killed. Upon arriving in canine heaven, after being assured by his heavenly host that all dogs go to heaven because of their built-in loyalty, Charlie immediately escapes the afterlife, re-inhabiting his body. Teaming back up with Itchy, the two befriend an orphan girl who can communicate with animals and set out on a new con. Charlie slowly grows attached to the girl. He has to keep safe from Carface and his goons, while avoiding eternal damnation for his immortal soul.

“All Dogs Go to Heaven” has the kind of weird high-concept premise that would sadly define most of Don Bluth’s films going into the nineties. The film is about a canine con artist. Using Ann-Marie’s gift of gab, Charlie figures out the clear winners or straight-up rigs horse races, as well as frog and turtle races. What exactly does a dog spend money on? Steaks, bones, and nice clothes for his human friends. The same way “The Secret of NIMH” and “An American Tail” took place in an undetected mice society living alongside man, this film shows the secret lives of stray dogs. There are dog casinos, where the wages are betted and paid in food. There are dog crime bosses, who wear dog clothing and run dog criminal empires. All of this seemingly goes on without humans noticing. This wasn’t a big deal with the earlier two films, because a world of mice is conceivably small enough to go unnoticed. But dogs? Isn’t all of this… Kind of weird?

Telling a story about dogs crooks was apparently not enough for Don Bluth. As the title suggests, “All Dogs Go to Heaven” also details the canine afterlife and the common pooch’s struggle for heavenly redemption. We see the doggy afterlife. Charlie is swept up through a glowing tunnel of bubbles. He meets a heavenly host, a floating pink whippet. Each dog’s life is represented by a clicking stop-watch. By re-winding his watch, Charlie effectively resurrects himself. However, once one leaves heaven, it’s apparently impossible to re-enter. Thus Charlie becomes the first dog damned to hell. He’s not much interested in morality or ethically up-right decisions but, as he becomes aware of his fate, he wonders if he can change his life. These are sort of heavy ideas and questions for a goofy cartoon about talking puppies.

As he did in his earlier movies, Don Bluth doesn’t back away from mature themes much. The dogs gamble. They spend most of the movie gambling, in one form or another. We see pup-worthy craps tables, doggy roulette machines, and literal rat races, which function much the same way as greyhound racing. Charlie gets drunk at one point and the dogs are clearly shown drinking beer. Presumably, the dog drug dealers, prostitutes, and pimps are kept just off-screen. (The movie also sneaks in a joke about “War and Peace,” which is likely to go over the kiddies’ heads.) Moreover, the movie’s bad guy murder Charlie, launching a car down a slope at him. Those same villains kidnap a little girl and hold her captive. Later in the movie, Carface and his sidekick Killer attempt to gun Charlie down. The movie calls it a “ray gun” and cheesy sci-fi noises were obviously added in post-production. But a viewer can clearly identify the device as a tommy gun. This is not the last attempt by the film’s bad guys to murder the movie’s hero. The cute characters contrasts strangely against the film's sometimes harsh content.

Lastly, Carface and Killer are weird villains. Let’s overlook that Carface is a canine crime lord who wears clothes, operates a casino, and smokes cigars. Let’s ignore Killer wearing glasses or operate vehicles. What about the coin-operated kiddy car ride Carface keeps in his den, with rolling footage of a road behind it? Weird. Anyway, Carface is voiced by Vic Tayback, in one of his final roles. The actor brings a lot of gravel and grit to the part of a talking dog. Charles Neslon Riley plays Killer as a stuttering, wimpy, but no less sadistic henchman. Both performances are well within the actor’s wheelhouse. Neither performance is good enough to overcome the strangeness of some of the story choices.

Most of the major characters were clearly written with specific actors in mind. Burt Reynold voices Charlie. Itchy is played by Burt’s frequent on-screen sidekick and Don Bluth regular Dom DeLuise. (The movie even sneaks in a brief part for Loni Anderson, Reynold’s then-wife, as Charlie’s occasional girlfriend.) Charlie is a lovable rogue, with less then honorable intentions, whose smooth way with words can talk anybody into most anything. It’s hard to tell if the dog has Burt’s famous shit-eating grin but the character is clearly patterned after him. Dom’s Itchy is at least different then his parts in previous Bluth films. Itchy is neurotic, focused on the plan, and frequently questions his buddy’s decisions. Dom and Burt apparently recorded their dialogue together and their obvious rapport is one of the clear positives of the film. Is it clever of the movie to clearly base the characters off the actors? Probably not but, eh, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Cast as Ann-Marie the orphan girl is Judith Barsi, the child actress who previously voiced Ducky in “The Land Before Time.” It’s impossible to overlook the sad, disturbing facts. After recording her part, the ten-year-old Barsi was murdered by her physically abusive father, along with her mother. The film is dedicated to her memory. The character of Ann-Marie was physically patterned after her. Ann-Marie’s black hair, expressive eyes, and round face reminds me a lot of Snow White as well. In the context of Barsi’s real life, Ann-Marie’s search for parents become unexpectedly touching. Her unassailable sweetness and goodness, which even brings out the best in a scoundrel like Charlie, is effective. Ultimately his character arc, of learning to love the girl as a pathway towards redemption, is touching. The final scene between the two characters is the only real tear-jerker in the film.

You might have notice that I haven’t mentioned the animation yet. “All Dogs Go to Heaven” is not as beautifully animated as Bluth’s previous productions. The painted backgrounds are not as gorgeous or lushly detailed as those we saw last time. They’re still really nice, which is a more of a testament to how beautiful Bluth’s last few films were and less of a criticism of this film. The character animation remains fantastic. Ann-Marie seems to move like a real person, with a very human expressiveness. While the dogs are cartoony and silly, the human characters all move with a fluid, life-like motion. This is especially noticeable during the central characters’ montage of success. “All Dogs Go to Heaven” doesn’t look quite as pretty as the director’s previous films, which means its still nice to look at.

A big problem facing “All Dogs Go to Heaven” is that it’s a musical. Bluth still hasn’t learned many lessons since “An American Tail.” The song-and-dance numbers in the movie are still distracting and kill the pacing. “You Can’t Keep a Good Dog Down,” which is both Charlie’s establishing moment and main theme, has a repetitive melody. But at least it has a melody, as opposed to the tuneless, wandering “I Want To Be Surprised,” the song Charlie sings in heaven. Especially cringe-inducing is “What’s Mine is Your’s.” The song has the kind of ham-handed moral message – Sharing is fun! – that Bluth usually avoids in his film. It does not advance the plot any, being inserted into a brief sequence where Charlie brings some pizza to a house full of puppies. Ann-Marie gets her own musical number, “Soon You’ll Come Home.’ Though set against a touching series of photos, of the girl imagining what life with a family must be like, the song isn’t very memorable. It’s also obviously not song by Judith Barsi. Mostly, it plays like an attempt to recreate the success of “Somewhere Out There.”

Aside from the implied substance abuse, criminal activity, and murder, “All Dogs Go to Heaven” has one specific scene seemingly designed to traumatize young viewers. Charlie has a nightmare about Hell. Straight-up, fire and brimstone Hell. He falls into a blazing pit and floats on a boat above a river of lava. A demonic creature snorts flames at him, which transform into tiny imps that gnaw at Charlie’s flesh. Reportedly, the scene had to be trimmed in order to gurantee a G rating. It’s still suitably intense and, doubtlessly, one of the most memorable scenes in the movie. A kid’s movie just dealing with concepts like eternal damnation and suffering forever in a pit of sulfur is startling, to say the least. That demonic cat creature returns briefly at the end too, when Charlie’s selfless sacrifice saves his soul from Hell.

It’s fair to say that “All Dogs Go to Heaven” has its share of baffling moments. However, one scene eclipses all the others for sheer what-the-fuck value. While sleeping in a dilapidated light house, Charlie and Ann-Marie fall through the floor boards. They are abducted by a group of primitive islander-style mice, who carry them to a platform in the building’s basement. There, the two are intended to be sacrificed to a giant alligator. However, the alligator is so taken with Charlie’s singing voice, that he launches into a colorful, bright musical number. The scene barely justifies its existence, when the gator reappears at the end to rescue Charlie and stop Carface. However, that moment feels like the bad deus ex machina it is. The musical number with the gator is completely at odds with the rest of the movie’s tone. It contributes little to the story and damages the pacing during an important dramatic moment. The scene in question is so confounding that a page on TV Tropes is named after it: The Big-Lipped Alligator Moment, a scene that appears out of nowhere, confuses the audience, and disappears just as quickly.

“All Dogs Go to Heaven” is incredibly uneven, obviously. The tone is all over the place. The story goes in some strange directions, never totally justifying most of them. The music isn’t memorable, when it’s not out-right bad. However, I still sort-of like it. The characters are fun. The movie can be unexpectedly touching at times. The animation is nice. Opening against “The Little Mermaid,” the movie did mediocre business at theaters before finding a second life on video. It’s popularity among kids would beget a seven years later sequel, a Saturday morning cartoon show, and even a Christmas special. So clearly even a movie this weird has its fans. I, with some reservations, consider myself an non-enthusiastic one. [Grade: B-]

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