Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Disney's Challengers, part VIII: Dog damn


Directed by Don Bluth (co-directed by Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy)
Written by David N. Weiss and zillion other people

Spoilers: moderate

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 Disneyafter 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 1989after The Little Mermaid, after the Disney Renaissancethe 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-likeand 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 superiorityas far as human and sad moppet girl design go, it is really unambiguousand 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 cleverit'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 inertand 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 poundframed 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 Carfacethe bulldog, after all, believes Charlie's deadand 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, thoughwhy 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, howevershe 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 narrativeit's one reason those 84 minutes feel like almost two hoursand 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 Paradebut, 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 liked30s 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 animationthe clocks, representing the boundedness of canine lives, and particularly the river of clocks flowing over a cloud in heaven, are really cooland 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 visualfrankly, he looks more like a giant rat, and I hate looking at him, which is a problem because he's in virtually every sceneand 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 distractingyou 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 lotusually more than it should!to make me not like something I already liked as a kid, but this one manages it.

Score: 2/10


  1. The Land Before Time coming out on top of Oliver & Company opening weekend was such a PR coup that I'd have thought for sure it was a Bluth thing (especially with Oliver & Company being in a lot less theaters), but learning that re-releases of Oliver & Company and The Little Mermaid went up against All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 and Anastasia, respectively, I'm now leaning more towards Disney being the one with a competitive streak.

    1. I've speculated both over the years: I wouldn't be surprised if Ron Miller and the loyalists had a personal grudge against Don Bluth, and even if Michael Eisner/Jeffrey Katzenberg couldn't have, it's business and that incentivizes shitty behavior even if Eisner and Katzenberg continue to strike me as representatives of a quaintly non-shitty breed of executive here in 2024; then again, Disney would have to have more faith in their product than could have possibly been justified by past results to think they could just blast Bluth out of theaters, something that even the obvious specialness of The Little Mermaid couldn't guarantee. Whereas Bluth, as an artist more than businessman, seemed very high on his own supply.

      The other alternative is it really was always pure coincidence. I've observed before that it would be kind of dumb (possibly, but dumb) to think TRON's audience overlapped with NIMH's; as for Oliver/Time and Dogs/Mermaid, it was the holidays.

      Also this was 1989 when I think there was less rational decisionmaking, re: staying out of other studios' ways and not cannibalizing obviously-overlapping audiences. See, e.g., Star Trek V, Ghostbusters II, Batman, and The Karate Kid III weekend on weekend in June, which is insane. (At least Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Lethal Weapon 2 are a slightly different audiences, but not that different, but we could throw all of those into the same five week period.) And heck, putting all those out while The Last Crusade is still in the main phase of its run seems questionable to me already!

    2. Hm, okay, I'd like to amend that to "semi-shitty," but on the billionaire scale, Michael Eisner never gave anybody cancer or dumped a million barrel of oil into the ocean or (I assume) repossessed their home. And I do miss the days when film studios were run by people who actually liked making, and had hands-on experience making, movies.

    3. Oh, another example in favor of "dumb coincidence/everyone was an egomaniac"--Fievel Goes West opened against Beauty and the Beast.

    4. Re: Dueling cartoon movies; I suppose it doesn't have to be just one culprit, they could've traded off being on the offense/defense, but Anastasia and All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 were two different studios and Bluth himself wasn't involved in the latter, so for me it paints a picture of Disney being the aggressor, trying to protect its turf (also picking on All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 strikes me as a "stop, stop, he's already dead!" move).

      This subject actually reminds me of the videogame scene in the late 90s, when Sony released Final Fantasy VIII against the Sega Dreamcast launch, and then later Nintendo put out Zelda: Majora's Mask day-and-date with the Playstation 2. I guess those situations are more "distract your current customers from straying" than an actual direct head-to-head, but they've got that same mischievous taste of corporate spitefulness to them.

    5. Re: Crowded summer '89; I reckon that was the very last gasp of any sort of "there's still hope after opening weekend" approach for major wide-release studio tentpole films, the following summer was way less insane (though partly because it was just a weaker lineup in general). There are some pre-90s release dates that are just *baffling* to look back on with modern eyes.

      One that I always remember is in 1984 when Star Trek III: Search for Spock came out the very next week after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; not only did they both seem to thrive regardless (Indy held on fine following a record opening weekend, and Spock had a smashing debut that improved on its series predecessor (which was itself a record opening!), these were both PARAMOUNT movies!

      And then the following weekend saw Ghostbusters and Gremlins join the fray, and if those two horror comedies cannibalized each other's grosses at all you couldn't tell because they were both huge smashes. All four would continue to do swell business throughout the summer even as more movies like The Karate Kid and Conan The Destroyer piled on.

      What might be even weirder are the intermittent weekends in the midst of this frenzy that didn't see any wide releases at all - this being in the middle of June and July! It was a different era, for sure.

    6. I ran across a tibit that suggests the guy who started it might be Steven Spielberg--two of our three big examples (Oliver/Land Before, Little Mermaid/All Dogs, Fievel/Beauty and the Beast) involve Spielberg as a producer, and the Oliver/Land Before experience taught Bluth bad lessons. But there's actually a fourth: An American Tail was apparently pitted against a re-release of Lady and the Tramp and, while I don't know why this should have emboldened anybody, Spielberg and Bluth walloped it.

      Temple/Star Trek III is crazy. I sort of understand irrational dick-measuring contests between film executives, but that's like "my dick's so big, watch me step on it." But I guess it worked out.

      There's a lot I dislike about modern cinema, but spreading out releases and divorcing "summer" from the actual astronominal phenomenon isn't one of them. (Though they can still screw up, as M:I 7 indicates, and somehow despite having a vast void to work with this autumn, they decided to dump like ten things I wanted to see into November and December. Didn't work out for The Marvels, did it?)

      I didn't know Anastasia came was met with ban on advertising on ABC. I'm genuinely unsure that was or is legal. Michael Eisner, I was just half-heartedly defending you, you bitch.

    7. All these tidbits we're unearthing of the cutthroat world of the animated family feature film business of the 80s and 90s is making want to see an irreverent warts-and-all Goodfellas-style docudrama based on Don Bluth's rivalry with Disney! Know any producers we could pitch this to?

      Re: Release dates back in the day; I think multiplexes still weren't quite omnipresent through most of the 80s. While in some ways you'd think that'd just make competition worse (obviously a single-screen theater can only show one movie at a time), when it comes to blockbusters it probably meant that it was simply impossible for a single film to saturate the market. Remember movie ads used to tout "at a theater near you!" rather than "in theaters everywhere."

      I can see a scenario in 1984 like,
      "Hey, Roxy, let's go see that movie Ghostbusters that just came out,"
      "Ugh, Ed, no way am I driving all the way downtown to the CineRoyale on a Friday night! How about Gremlins? Mann's Aztec Theater is just down the street and it sounds like it's pretty much the same thing just with gremlins instead of ghosts. Also the good gremlin is cute and furry."
      "Alright Roxy, but you gotta promise me we go see Ghostbusters when it gets to our neighborhood."
      "Yeah, sure. Say, Ed, have you seen my DeBarge cassette anywhere?"

      (Feel free to substitute "Indiana Jones/ Star Trek" or "Oliver & Company/ Land Before Time", etc.)

    8. > Also this was 1989... See, e.g., Star Trek V, Ghostbusters II, Batman, and The Karate Kid III weekend in June

      1989 was absolutely bananas from a blockbuster perspective. You also mentioned Last Crusade and Little Mermaid. Also Back to the Future 2, When Harry Met Sally, Bill and Ted, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Road House, Born on the Fourth of July, Lethal Weapon 2, Field of Dreams, a Halloween, a Friday the 13th, and a Nightmare on Elm Street. (I haven't checked the box office on all of these but all seem like they would have been decent-sized events for some large audience segment.)

      I just listened to the UHF commentary track by Weird Al, and he attributes the overcrowded release schedule of the year for the movie's commercial flop, which in turn sunk Orion completely. (On the other hand, the studio probably shouldn't have pinned their financial future on a niche parody comedian...)

      Reading this, I also thought about A Bug's Life and Antz, not on the same weekend, but I think that is documented as a DreamWorks bit of aggression.

      That had me thinking of Newt, the canceled Pixar film, which John Lasseter attributed to being too similar to Rio. It's not exactly the same thing, since it was never about releasing on the same weekend, but animated films have a long history of cannibalizing business from each other, so I think we can assume there were other problems with it.

    9. Daf: plus there's just the decline in theatrical attendance overall, which afaik is pretty much a straight downward-sloping line since 1948 or 1949.

      Dan: y'know, Antz would prove that Katzenberg could be a bastard, and he would have presumably had some level of input into Buena Vista's release schedule while at Disney, but I don't know how he reaches the level of personal animosity embodied by Antz over Don Bluth, whom I'm not sure he ever met. (Then again, who's the S in SKG? I think he'd surrendered his pretensions to Disneydom to Katzenberg by that point, and correctly so, though I assume he must've signed off on Antz in some fashion.)

      For their part, Simon Wells and Phil Nibbelink express complete confusion why Fievel Goes West was thrown at Beauty and the Beast. They at least claim to have found it foolhardy at the time.