When I decided - like a damn idiot - to spice up my 45-day Disney retrospective by also taking into consideration the four films directed in the 1980s by former Disney animator Don Bluth, who in that time came very close to shattering his former employer's once-iron stranglehold on American theatrical animation, there was one thing that worried me: All Dogs Go to Heaven. I have an extremely traumatic relationship with that movie. When I was a wee child of seven or eight, I know not which (it was in theaters when I turned from one t'other, you see), I saw this film and experienced one of the most profoundly uncomfortable physical experiences that I have ever felt in a movie theater. During a particular scene, which I have always remembered in vivid detail, I became gripped by some kind of fit, feeling like my skull was about to shatter as my whole body shook, and though the feeling lasted but a moment I have never once forgotten it in the 20 years since; nor have I ever had the courage to revisit All Dogs Go to Heaven, for who would willingly court such an experience?
I share this so that you know where my head was when I prepared to watch the movie, at long last, for the second time. There might never have been a film in this blog's history that I had such particular reason for dreading it. At the same time, its threshold for success was almost comically low: as long as it didn't trigger an epileptic seizure, I'd be likely to call it a victorious screening. Well, it did not give me a seizure; and I did come away feeling very favorably disposed towards it. I will let the reader conclude if these two facts are related.
Bluth's departure from the Universal Studios fold, and the lovingly tyrannic embrace of Steven Spielberg, following The Land Before Time was based in his frustration at having it dictated to him what kind of movies he would be allowed to make. After all, if he'd only wanted to make soppy children's movies, he could have stayed with Disney, n'est-ce pas? Thus did he hitch his wagon to the British company Goldcrest Films, where he was given a smaller budget but a much freer hand to do whatever he liked. And what he liked was to revive a project conceived in the wake of The Secret of NIMH, involving a canine private eye played by Burt Reynolds, abandoned around the time that Bluth focused his attentions on the insanely ambitious video game project Dragon's Lair.
Late in 1987, with The Land Before Time still a year from release, Bluth and his unflagging friend and associate Gary Goldman started putting together a story. The private eye angle was abandoned, and the title All Dogs Go to Heaven was chosen even before the rudiments of a story had been put together. Eventually, Bluth and his story team had assembled a tale set in New Orleans, 1939, about a slick ex-con mutt named Charlie (still played by Reynolds), who escapes from the pound to return to the casino he'd started with a thuggish bulldog named Carface (Vic Taylor). Carface, however, has little desire to split the profits of the casino these days, and so he has Charlie rubbed out.
Up Charlie goes to heaven, for that is where all dogs must go, even the ones who've done nothing of the remotest value with their life. But he would rather get revenge on his murderous ex-partner than enjoy an eternity of boring bliss, and in no time at all he's come back to life, engaging his old buddy Itchy (Dom DeLuise) to help him kidnap a little orphaned human girl, Anne-Marie (Judith Barsi), whose ability to speak to animals of every species has been a boon to Carface in fixing the results of the rat races that are his casino's biggest draw. At first, Charlie just wants to hurt his enemy, and maybe use Anne-Marie's skills at, say, talking to race horses to make some quick cash of his own. But the orphan quickly imprints on the dog, and though it takes a bit longer than it would in a Disney film, she starts to melt his selfish heart and teach him the value of family and love.
This sweetie-pie moral is not achieved without a tremendous amount of darkness, though; the cruel edge of The Secret of NIMH had returned in a big way, giving the film a distinct personality that sets it against the sugariness of most children's filmmaking. It might indeed be too dark, for some cuts had to be made to keep the film from the dread PG rating; but if we accept that it's a movie for adult animation buffs rather than little kids, I think it is easy to ignore the film's grim edges (there's even a scene in Hell!) and even mourn the parts that were snipped away.
The Ireland studio was far more enthusiastic about this project than The Land Before Time, and once the Goldcrest money deal was in place, All Dogs Go to Heaven was completed in a shockingly brief period of animation; yet despite that, it is infinitely more beautiful than the dino picture, or even An American Tail; in particular, Bluth's character designs (with help from his other unflagging friend John Pomeroy) is perhaps the finest work of his career as an artist. Unlike Disney's dogs in Oliver & Company or The Fox and the Hound, Bluth's characters hit a sweet spot of looking unmistakably canine, but having a veneer of cartoon anthropomorphism that gives them a certain flexibility that the Disney aesthetic doesn't permit. They wear clothes, drink beer, concoct plots, and play piano, all without sacrificing their essential dogginess; I would hesitate only briefly before calling them the most appealing animated dogs since Disney's Lady and the Tramp, 34 years earlier.
Crucially, Anne-Marie is also a tremendously well-designed character. As the Bluth company's first proper human, it is a certainty that she represented the biggest stress to the animators and the director, but she is quite well-executed. Overly charming human children can have a nightmarish effect on a cartoon: Penny in Disney's The Rescuers (a film Bluth no doubt remembered well) is the biggest obstacle to that film being a genuinely great movie, and Jenny in Oliver & Company is the largest reason that film is a wreck. But Anne-Marie is an outstanding example of making a human child look cute and innocent but not cloying, and she is more to the point a really great example animation in general, with a certain delicacy to the shading and design of her facial features that reminds one of Disney's very first heroine in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
All Dogs Go to Heaven has, I think, the most appealing clutch of characters in any Bluth film, and an unusually complex story that does some very weird things for a children's film; but it is not a slam-dunk like The Secret of NIMH, for there are a number of rough patches in the plot, which gets more and more episodic as the film progresses, culminating in that scene that caused me such trouble back in my childhood. Here, Charlie and Anne-Marie, running from Carface's laser gun (a stupid idea introduced to avoid bringing too much real-world violence into the film; the script called for a tommy gun), end up in the subterranean grotto of King Gator (Ken Page), who is so excited when he hears Charlie sing that he abandons plans to eat the duo and instead launches into an homage to the work of Esther Williams. It may not have driven me to sickness this time, but the scene still dazzles me with its conceptual wrongness - it is bizarre as hell and serves no point, and the song King Gator sings is awful.
That's another big strike against the film: its terrible, terrible soundtrack of unmelodic noodling mostly written by Charles Strause, the creator of the deathless Annie. Every time the music starts, the film shuts right down, we wait three tedious minutes, and the film can get back to business. I understand the appeal of having music in a children's animated feature, but it is better to have no songs at all than to have them be this bad.
Still, so much more of the film's story works than doesn't, and the characters are so inviting and the animation so damn beautiful, that I do not hesitate to call All Dogs Go to Heaven Bluth's second outright triumph; a film whose burial in the last 20 years is nothing short of a crime.
But not inexplicable. Good as it may have been for his art and his happiness, Bluth's split from Steven Spielberg and Amblin was career suicide: it meant that he no longer had the marketing base and opportunity for a huge release that had turned An American Tail and The Land Before Time into two of the highest-grossing animated films of all time, up to that point.
There was another, much greater problem, one that Bluth could neither predict nor prevent. The important fact about his rise to the top of American animation in the 1980s is that it was only possible because the mighty Disney Animation Studios had been laid low by one bad film after another, misunderstanding their audience and losing their corporate identity. When Bluth jumped ship, his reasoning - Disney had lost its way, and an independent needed to bring Uncle Walt's spirit back to cartooning - was perfectly sound.
Unfortunately for Bluth, this career model of his was predicated on Disney continuing to spew out unsuccessful garbage; and in this he made a profound misjudgment. All Dogs Go to Heaven became the second Bluth feature in as many years to open the same day as Disney's newest project, but where The Land Before Time despite its many faults, was still a a good sight better than Oliver & Company, All Dogs Go to Heaven, despite its charms, doesn't hold a candle to Disney's The Little Mermaid, a flat-out masterpiece in every respect that an animated film can triumph. It smoked Bluth's film at the box office, and trounced it in the critical race as well: the print reaction to All Dogs was positively savage, and even if one dislikes the film, it's hard to justify the vitriol pour on it in those days. I cannot explain why this happened, unless it is just that Bluth was seen as a novelty in the days when Disney was in exile; once Disney came back with a bang, Bluth could be safely discarded as a jackass trying to steal Walt's legacy.
Bluth made several more features in the next eleven years, and he continues to seek support for future projects. But this is as far as we will follow his career, for after All Dogs Go to Heaven, he never again put up a significant fight to his old Disney colleagues. I wonder if he takes solace in the thought that he lost the war because he was right, all along: Disney needed to find its way, and at last they did. Bluth may have been left in the cold after 1989, but at least his vision of American feature animation lived on.