Directed by Don Bluth (co-directed by Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy)
Written by David N. Weiss and zillion other people
I don't know, though I'm going to guess, why Don Bluth thought it was a good idea to spend the major half of his independent career on frontal attacks against his former employers at Disney by almost invariably opening his animated movies directly against theirs and often enough on the very same weekend; by 1989, he'd done so twice already, and while TRON and The Secret of NIMH in 1982 was possibly an actual accident (whereas The Great Mouse Detective and An American Tail in 1986 overlapped only in subject matter, not release window), in 1988 we have Oliver & Company and The Land Before Time, confirming that somebody must have deliberately been playing chicken. It takes two to tango, so you could just as easily lay the blame with Disney—after all, Bluth would presumably have had less control over his release dates (he didn't even always have the same distributor) than Disney/Buena Vista would have had with theirs. But it's fun to think that, because he hated them, he didn't merely want to succeed, he wanted his enemy to fail, and this obsession brought about the destruction of all he held dear. However it came to be, that's what happened, and on November 17th, 1989, the two rivals would clash for the last time as anything like equals, when Bluth released All Dogs Go To Heaven, confident that Disney was going to release one more piece of disposable junk like they'd been doing, not without any interruptions, but nonetheless with regularity, for the past thirty years. This was the studio whose last movie was Oliver & Company, after all. But the movie Disney fielded on that fateful day was The Little Mermaid, and it almost single-handedly birthed an entirely new era in American animation, though Bluth probably already ought to have been cautioned by the incredible success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit the year before. Sullivan Bluth Studios or a successor would still carry on, releasing four more animated features; Bluth would go on to direct seven more in total. But after 1989—after The Little Mermaid, after the Disney Renaissance—the entire remainder of Bluth's career is, in a sense, epilogue. Only the jewel of Anastasia would go on to do anything to burnish his legacy; and it's reductive to describe it thus and I love the movie, but Anastasia is basically The Little Mermaid.
On the other hand, Bluth came to the fight with this, and even if he did think he was competing with Oliver & Company, Oliver & Company still wins. The striking similarities between the two projects make it incredibly easy to compare them, precisely like-to-like—and isn't it weird that within a period of just 365 days the American animation industry somehow produced two whole feature cartoons that can be filed under the hyperspecific genre classification, "canine gangster musical adoption melodrama"?—and, in that comparison, Oliver & Company, despite being bad, is better on almost any given metric: animation, design, songs, even plot somehow, though maybe not on "story," when all things are considered. (All Dogs can really only claim better human animation and, specifically, better "sad moppet girl" animation, with any unambiguous superiority—as far as human and sad moppet girl design go, it is really unambiguous—and I would personally give All Dogs "better effects animation," for if there's one thing that you could have the utmost faith in from Bluth in the 80s, it was effects animation, but even then the integration of CGI into Oliver & Company is perhaps more interesting.) There has been a long and largely successful effort from the VHS generation to rescue this initially-maligned film's reputation, and while I agree, in a vacuum, that maybe contemporary critics (and contemporary theatrical audiences) were being unfair in their readiness to deny it so much as a right to exist, just because The Little Mermaid existed too, this isn't a vacuum. I just watched the damn thing, and I just don't get it, outside of the custom of the animation aficionado to pay obeisance to Bluth for challenging the big, bad entertainment company with his own small, bad entertainment company. (Sullivan Bluth's working conditions got, let's say, suboptimal, though admittedly there was hardly any way around it.) No, I don't get it at all: there is very little about the film that's appealing, not all that much that makes sense, and not much of its nonsense is presented in an enjoyable way, even on a "crazy kid's cartoon" level; and while it is, undeniably, a crazy kid's cartoon, it's kind of boring about that.
What it does have is a concept, embodied in its excellent title, and that concept is good and clever—it's a hook in a way the original concept, "canine private detective solves a crime of some sort," dreamed up around the time NIMH was being made, is completely inert—and I did say, back on Oliver & Company, that maybe that movie about a canine crime ring wouldn't have been so objectionably stupid if it had built out a canine criminal underworld better-capable of supporting that idea. All Dogs doesn't entirely make me eat my words, for at least you can, for a little bit, kind of buy into its premise. So: in New Orleans in 1939, Charlie, a German shepherd (Burt Reynolds), has been sent to "death row"—that is, the dog pound—framed for a crime he didn't commit, and while I feel this is already prompting importune questions such as "so was it a jury of humans or of other dogs who 'convicted' him for this 'crime'?", that's me being no fun, and we don't have time to think about it too much anyway, because we begin right in the midst of his breakout with help from his friend Itchy, a daschund (Dom DeLuise). Upon his escape, Charlie naturally enough seeks out his old business partner, Carface, a bulldog (Vic Tayback), at the casino Charlie helped build, unaware that Carface is the one who put him away with, I don't know, fabricated evidence and suborned witnesses, whatever, let's just get through it, and Carface really wants to keep Charlie out of the picture. To this end, and exploiting poor Charlie's trust, he sends him to heaven by way of a speeding car and the Gulf of Mexico.
Unfortunately for Carface, while Charlie duly arrives in heaven, he doesn't stay there; he's determined to get his revenge, and he doesn't even wait long enough to process the warning that while all dogs go to heaven, if he leaves, he can't ever come back. The good news is that Charlie now has the advantage over Carface—the bulldog, after all, believes Charlie's dead—and he cajoles Itchy into an infiltration of Carface's casino, to investigate something Itchy overheard there, about the "monster" Carface keeps locked away. This is no ordinary monster, though—why it's no monster at all, but a little orphan girl, Anne-Marie (the tragically short-lived Judith Barsi, in her final role before her murder). Anne-Marie does have a gift, however—she can talk to animals, dogs, yes, but also rats, horses, anything that can be used for racing (in this world dogs can talk, but usually only to other dogs), which has made her the lynchpin of Carface's gambling operation. Charlie sees the value, and kidnaps/"rescues" her, promising to get her new parents in exchange for her help at the races, likening their scheme to that of Robin Hood (the semi-legendary figure, not the better talking animal cartoon that Bluth worked on), and all of this, of course, is bullshit. But Charlie is living on borrowed time, and so far all he's done is ensured the misery of an innocent little girl, and that wherever he goes next, it's definitely not going to be heaven.
So far, so okay, I guess, though I think it's far more noticeable than Bluth and this film's extraordinarily large group of storypeople must have perceived it to be that Charlie forgets that what he crawled out of his watery grave for was to get revenge, not to make a bunch of money (nor to have his heart grow three sizes over the course of 84 minutes), and that the best revenge is not just "living well" when you openly advertise your reemergence to the crime boss who already murdered you once and will undoubtedly attempt to do so again, which Carface inevitably does. This really goes to the foundational problem with All Dogs Go to Heaven, that it's almost completely unfocused as a narrative—it's one reason those 84 minutes feel like almost two hours—and in lieu of focus, things just sort of happen, sometimes things that somewhat track with the story, and sometimes things that spring out of absolutely nowhere, such as the infamous deployment of "Flash Gordon ray guns" by Carface's canine gang (this was at least a dumbassed censorship issue), or what that ray gun chase scene sets up, the even-more-infamous dive into a subterranean pit where Charlie and Anne-Marie confront the proverbial big-lipped alligator (Ken Page) and his army of "tribal" sewer rats. The latter ties in very loosely to the setting, if you even remember this is New Orleans, or 1939, or that in the 1980s you could still be obliquely racist, though you might not; this is more-or-less the first time that the film has actually insisted on New Orleans in any specific way, and that's if you can call "vodoun stereotype alligator?" particularly "insistent." Then the alligator launches into a parody of an Esther Williams routine from at least five years after 1939 (and more like thirteen)—I suppose somebody could try to (poorly) argue it's in reference to 1933's "By a Waterfall" from Footlight Parade—but, in either case, I fucking hate it.
There's some energy in this sequence, at least, and I can concede that there's something idiosyncratic to All Dogs' 30sness (and, as noted, its 40sness), in that Bluth has, for whatever reasons that made sense in his brain, smashed together all the things I assume he must have liked—30s gangster pictures, 30s orphan films (I think so anyway, I've not seen many Shirley Temples, but I assume there's some resonance there), 40s celestial bureaucracy pictures, talking dog cartoons of several eras (though the 50s are presumably Bluth's touchstone given it produced the form's definitive example), and, finally (but maybe not exhaustively), in this one scene with an alligator, an "undifferentiated tropics" South Seas adventure with King Kong overtones. (Yet somehow not musicals, besides aquamusicals, from any of those decades: All Dogs is, obviously, "a musical." That's an objective fact, since characters, mainly Charlie, do break out into song. But with all the love in the world to Burt Reynolds, whose performance is reasonably fine and Reynoldsy, he transforms it into something I would like to describe as an anti-musical, a place where songs go to die, and they do not die quickly. In case you were wondering why the alligator spares Charlie's life, it's because when Charlie howls, he discovers Charlie's beautiful voice, which in its own right feels like a horrible anti-joke.)
Somehow it's never a reference to Gator. (At least they did one earlier.)
I cannot say what this pile-up of genres really amounts to, though, except a mess, and the vast majority of it is just the 30s gangster movie anyway, and a deeply unengaging version of that, just a long-feeling series of fixed animal races that start to shake the already-wobbling world-building once you realize that, in this universe, the animals appear to already be fixing their own races for their own purposes. (This is pretty explicit with the horses, who do further damage to the story logic, because at least one of them can very clearly already understand "dog.") It's some kind of indictment of All Dogs that the single best scene in the movie (at least that isn't in a metaphysical realm) is when it pretty much entirely gives up, and just becomes a corny, dopey, for-once-kind-of-funny gag cartoon for three minutes, concerning a girl and two dogs in a coat attempting to place a bet.
The metaphysical parts do work out better. Not uniformly: Reynolds sings a paint-peelingly awful duet with the whippet angel in heaven (Melba Moore), "Let Me Be Surprised," regarding the potential aridity of existence in paradise, which barely fits in with why he wants to leave paradise, so even before Charlie's returned to seek his vengeance, he's already losing track of it. But they are, nonetheless, the recipients of the strongest design and conceptual elements here, as well as the most committed effects animation—the clocks, representing the boundedness of canine lives, and particularly the river of clocks flowing over a cloud in heaven, are really cool—and the vision of hell that seizes Charlie in a nightmare is great, a realm of lava and monsters and a demonic Charon so scary they cut finished animation, lest they give children nightmares. (Which it still did!) And the climax in a sinking ship is fairly good, too, demanding some more hellish fire effects along with strong water animation.
But this is just not a lot of the movie. Most of it is just aimless 30s gangster movie stuff, aggravatingly so when the cherubic Anne-Marie is slotted into the corrupted ingenue role, even animated with new (and unnatural) facial expressions to this end, without any ability, obviously, to actually do that; her entirely-static function winds up instead to deliver annoying moralistic nagging intercut with a bunch of cloying emotional manipulation, purely as a locus for audience sads, without any character to actually attach those sads to. For those who love this movie, a common refrain is that it finds its way to sentiment through darker channels than Disney fare, and I don't know what they're talking about. Nothing is truly dark in this movie besides, sometimes, the color palette; it charts something that superficially looks like a challenging course with Charlie-the-asshole, or Itchy-the-even-bigger-asshole, but the ending is always foreordained; the one and only time I thought it got at anything legitimately and meaningfully mature is in the other best not-in-heaven-or-hell scene, where Charlie and Anne-Marie hole up with the collie, Flo (Loni Anderson), who is strongly implied to be a canine prostitute, and amongst whose extremely large number of puppies is strongly implied to be one or more of Charlie's offspring, and in these implications, there is, at last, some actual subtlety and grown-up texture that is present in no other relationship in the film.
For all that, Anne-Marie is still probably the best character here, because she is at least sympathetic and cute and well-animated and well-designed (there's a lot of Snow White in an 80s Bluth style to Anne-Marie). Charlie, meanwhile, is downright awful as a visual—frankly, he looks more like a giant rat, and I hate looking at him, which is a problem because he's in virtually every scene—and Itchy is worse, wearing clothes (some but not all of the dogs wear clothes), notably a kewl backwards baseball cap. He's given immensely irritating voice by DeLuise, who recorded alongside his pal Reynolds so that the two could improvise a bunch of conversations that never seem to end, and while these two being tedious together won't shock anyone who's ever seen Smokey and the Bandit II, it's still a drag. There is also how Bluth has decided to approach "dogs" and a "secret dog society to the side of humanity," which I found extremely distracting—you could ask "why is NIMH (or whatever) good, then?", and I would simply point to scale: a miniature society works when it's actually miniature, and invisible, but dogs are huge. Likewise, there's this sour spot that the film finds with their anthropomorphism, this uncanny position between Lady and the Tramp/101 Dalmatians doggy naturalism and dogs with overt primate features that, furthermore, will visibly transform, frequently within the same shot, depending on the needs of any given activity. The Land Before Time's focus on quadrupeds tamped down a lot of Bluth's worst habits about fidgety secondary movement; this protean quality brings it back more than you'd like.
So it's not just the worst of Bluth's first four features, but the worst-looking. That doesn't mean it looks outright bad, because Bluth had set a pretty high baseline, but All Dogs doesn't quite hit the bar. A lot of it is thanks to the character issues I've already discussed (it is certainly not limited to the characters I discussed: ugly character design is everywhere, and, astonishingly, the alligator isn't even the creature here with the most grotesque lip design). But Bluth and Larry Leker's production design can be bad, not as routinely as the characters, and there's an "everything is always a giant trash pile" aesthetic that it can capture quite well, but there are some baffling color design decisions, with a tendency toward vomiting multiple hues all over the backdrops that sometimes even erupts into the animated elements. (This really hurts that scene at Flo's: her puppies look like fucking Carebears.) And while one of the Bluth hallmarks I generally like is his early films' unique photographic haze, in this one it goes overboard, to the point it feels like even the camera department didn't quite know what they were doing; it's uncommon for an animated film to have a shot actually, unintentionally out-of-focus, but All Dogs has one. I recall that I liked All Dogs Go To Heaven when I was a kid, so at least nostalgia should be working for it, but it's not. It takes a lot—usually more than it should!—to make me not like something I already liked as a kid, but this one manages it.