Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Director Report Card: Don Bluth (1991)

5. Rock-A-Doodle

As some point during the seventies at Disney, when Don Bluth was still working there, the idea of adapting the French fable Chantecler was floated. The concept made it far enough that artwork was created before the premise was abandoned. Obviously, something about the story of a conceited rooster who believes his crow raises the sun stuck with Bluth. A decade later, now heading his own company and looking for a second project to pursue with Goldcrest after “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” Bluth would return to the rooster’s story. The resulting film, “Rock-A-Doodle,” was a disaster at the box office and would become the director’s most infamous misfire.

On a farm populated with cartoon animals, Chanticleer the crow raises the sun every morning with his mighty, musical crow. That is until one morning, when the sun rises without him, Dejected and laughed at by his friend, Chanticleer leaves the farm. At least, this is what little boy Edmond reads in his story book. During a bad storm, the characters from the boy’s book seemingly come to life. The evil Duke, a magical owl, transforms the boy into a cartoon kitten. Edmond must team up with the other animals on the farm to bring Chanticleer back so that the sun may rise and the owl’s reign of terror may end.

With “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” we entered a new period in Don Bluth’s career, when all his movies had really bizarre, high concept premises. In his previous movie, Bluth awkwardly mashed up a story about cartoon dogs, con men and criminals, and a tale of heavenly redemption and eternal damnation. “Rock-A-Doodle’ is a similar hodgepodge of seemingly unrelated premises and ideas. The film loosely adapts the Chanticleer fable, ditching the story’s hubris-questioning moral and adding some evil owl bad guys. Weirdly, Bluth bases Chanticleer on Elvis, turning the film into a riff on Presley’s career. Lastly, it throws in an audience surrogate protagonists and live action sequences. Unlike “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” which made its odd combination of ideas work somehow, “Rock-A-Doodle” mostly just feels weird and half-formed, its multiple concepts never cohering into a satisfying whole.

If you Ctrl-F “Rock-A-Doodle’s” Wikipedia page, you’ll discover that the words “Roger Rabbit” appears five times. The combination of live action and traditional animation seen in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” blew everyone’s mind back in the eighties. Obviously, that film’s massive critical and box office success was on Bluth’s mind. And considering that “Roger Rabbit” was an Amblin production, maybe Bluth felt a little left out. After all, he was an animator previously associated with Steven Spielberg’s company. Maybe he was left wondering about a world where he was involved with “Roger Rabbit” and helped birth a big hit and an endearing classic. All my supposing aside, “Rock-A-Doodle’s” attempts to emulate the more famous film are awkward. The live-action framing device adds little to the film. It mostly leaves the audience wondering if “Rock-A-Doodle” takes place entirely inside a little boy’s imagination or if some level of magic-realism is involved here. There are few scenes were flesh-and-blood actors and cartoons exist side-by-side. Those that do exist do not look convincing. The human cast members look awkwardly stitched in among the animated characters. (Though these scenes do feature Dee Wallace, playing another mom character in another fantasy film.)

The film just being weird and undercooked would be big enough sins on their own. “Rock-A-Doodle” also has an annoying main character. Edmond is played by Toby Scott Ganger, who has no credits before this and few afterwards. Ganger spends the entire film speaking with an obnoxious, childish lisp, replacing his Rs with Ws. This makes lines like “I’m all furry!” and others difficult to understand and sickeningly cute. Edmond doesn’t even contribute much to the story, beyond figuring out that flashlights can be used to dissuade the owls and flinging a letter to Chanticleer. Considering the fate of the animals’ farm is what’s at stake here, it’s weird that an outsider, with little personal connection to the farm, would be the main character. Mostly, Edmond is just annoying. His furry kitty appearance and coon-skin cap don’t do much to soften this flaw.

Turning Chanticleer into an Elvis figure is another odd decision. Even in 1991, when the film was finally released after several missed release dates, where kids that familiar with the stylings of Elvis Presley? The movie features a few in-jokes about the King’s career. Chanticleer struts on-stage in a white jump-suit right out of Presley’s Las Vegas era. The melody that plays when he dances out is vaguely reminiscent to some of the King’s hits. Like the pop culture icon, Chanticleer reduces women to blubbering masses of joyous tears. Both the rooster and Elvis Aaron Presley parlay their success at music into cheesy movies, though we never see the film Chanticleer stars in. The movie even gives Chanticleer a manipulative manager, a fox named Pinky, that takes way too much money from his hugely successful performer. Most of these references are likely to fly over the heads of little kids. One right thing about all of this is the actor cast in the part. Glenn Campbell, a pop icon in his own right, does a distant job of imitating Presley’s famous croon while maintaining his Campbell-esque swagger.

Another weird thing about “Rock-A-Doodle” are those villainous owls. Complex villains have never exactly been a trademark of Bluth’s films. The Duke is probably the thinnest baddie yet. As an owl, he hates the sun. Thus, he hates Chanticleer, who summons the sun. That’s about it. Weirdly, the Duke can also produce magical waves of some sort from his mouth. With these shrieks, he transform Edmond into a cat, his nephew into multiple different types of birds, and makes himself giant. As absurd as the character is, this part is also well-cast. Respected thespian Christopher Plummer has appeared in lots of schlock over the years, always bringing a certain amount of respect to even the lowest of material. “Rock-A-Doodle” is no different. Plummer makes the Duke gleefully villainous, loving each silly line. While not even Plummer can make the character intimidating exactly, his robust vocal performance is easily a high-light of “Rock-A-Doodle.”

“Rock-A-Doodle” attempted to chase “Roger Rabbit’s” tail in another way, with the addition of a sexy female cartoon character. Goldie Pheasant is no Jessica Rabbit. First off, she’s not even human. She’s a cartoon chicken, which is a weird thing to sexualize. The result makes Goldie look like an animated showgirl with a beak randomly placed on her face. Inserting such a mature idea into such a childish film mostly just makes the audience uncomfortable. It made test audiences uncomfortable too, as Goldie’s ample cleavage was hastily covered up before the film’s release. Voicing the character is Ellen Greene, of “Little Shop of Horrors” fame. Greene’s high-pitched coo is well-suited to the love bird’s personality. However, the script gives her little to work with. Goldie’s transition from pretending to love Chanticleer to actually loving him happens over the course of one scene. Mostly, Goldie is another aspect that makes “Rock-A-Doodle’ such a weird, off-putting movie.

Edmond obviously not being enough in the director’s eyes, “Rock-A-Doodle” also introduces a bunch of other animal sidekicks. Chief among them is Snipes the Magpie. The character is selfish, obnoxious, glutenous, endangers the main cast at least once, and never seems to apologize for hurting Chanticleer's feelings. Eddie Deezen’s trademark nasal whine makes the character even more annoying. Phil Harris, in his last screen credit, voices Patou the dog, the film’s narrator and probably the least annoying of the central cast. Harris’ strong, instantly recognizable voice even makes a script this disjointed feel easy and natural at times. Charles Nelson Reily basically reprises his role from “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” appearing as another henchmen who resents his boss and has an eccentric speech pattern. The movie can’t get enough of funny voices. In addition to the Elvis impersonation, Eddie Deezen, and Edmond’s little-kid speech, there’s a mouse with a lisp and a stuttering pig.

I’ll give “Rock-A-Doodle” this much: The musical numbers are more memorable and better incorporated into the story then those in “All Dogs Go to Heaven.” The delivery of talented singers like Glen Campbell and Ellen Greene probably had something to do with this. The opening number, “Sun Do Shine,” sure is catchy, establishing a breezy mood the rest of the movie can’t keep up with. Glen Campbell’s more-then-adequate Elvis impregnation is well-used on the title track and “Treasure Hunting Fever,” whose aquatic themed stage number is probably the most memorable sequence in the film. Ellen Green’s feather-light singing voice is achingly sexy. Disappointingly, her only two numbers, “Sink or Swim” and “Cuddle ‘n Coo,” are barely heard in the movie. Even then, there are some baffling songs in “Rock-A-Doodle.” “Tweedle Te Dee,” sung by the owls, takes place around a giant, gothic organ. A group of bouncers, who are portrayed as toads har de har, get their own song, which is awfully mean-spirited. Still, the songs are probably one of the better things about “Rock-A-Doodle.”

If “Rock-A-Doodle” was meant to be a comedy, there’s few laughs in it. The Duke transforming his nephew into a pickle-shaped pigeon, among other things, is more off-putting then funny. Eddie Deezen’s magpie declaring his love for a slab of lasagna mostly just makes him look like an asshole. The doofus behavior of the Duke’s henchmen is silly, low-brow, and never amusing. The only time I think I laughed during the film’s run-time is when Pinky mistakes the lisping mouse for his helicopter pilot. As an action fantasy, “Rock-A-Doodle” fares slightly better. A chase scene, where Chanticleer leaps on a motorcycle and escapes his captors, is mildly diverting. The finale, where the rooster regains his confidence and defeats the Duke, is still pretty baffling. Why does Chanticleer transform into a beam of light? The film is never truly effective. As a result, it feels much longer then its brief 77 minute run time.

As if “Rock-A-Doodle” wasn’t messed up enough already, the film’s poor test screening resulted in some clumsy, last-minute changes. Phil Harris’ Patou becomes the film’s narrator. The dog delivers exposition over the film footage, expounding upon the film’s already obvious plot points. Insultingly, Patou even talks over several of the musical numbers! Despite clarifying the movie’s storyline, it doesn’t make the movie’s events any less confounding. You also get the impression that a lot was cut out of “Rock-A-Doodle.” A musical number plays over the end credits, of Patou singing about tying his shoes, that seems to have been intended for the movie proper. Other scenes are oddly abbreviated, ending abruptly. “Rock-A-Doodle’ has lousy pacing, feeling too long. Yet it also feels rushed and cluttered. The movie is simultaneously too long and too short. Figure that out.

“Rock-A-Doodle” bombed hard at the box office, making 11 million against a 18 million dollar budget. The film’s failure prematurely ended Bluth’s association with Goldcrest, one more picture left to go on their three picture deal. Soon afterwards, Bluth’s entire company would be liquidated. The animation is good, though not up to the standards of Bluth’s earlier films. The story and tone are jumbled messes. The film’s content is often baffling. The characters are annoying. Despite the decent music and Campbell, Plummer, and Greene’s best efforts, “Rock-A-Doodle” is not a good movie. [Grade: C]

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