Thursday, February 15, 2024

Disney's Challengers, part XI: Après moi, le déluge


Directed by Don Bluth
Written by David N. Weiss and numerous others (based on the play Chantecler by Edmond Rostand)

Spoilers: moderate

There must've been something about the concept of Chanticleer, I know not what, but presumably just the fact it involves talking animals, that rooted itself in the hearts of a minority of 20th century animators.  From the 1930s until 1992, somebodynot that many somebodies, but somebodywas constantly thinking about a singing rooster, and for much of that time somebody was pitching that idea to Walt Disney.  Marc Davis and Ken Anderson were major proponents of the medieval French fable, "How Reynard Captured Chanticleer the Rooster" (spoiler: he did not successfully capture Chanticleer the Rooster), as a subject amenable to the Disney treatment.  Disney never agreed, but something akin to Chanticleer found his way into 1973's Robin Hood, in the form of the rooster minstrel and all-round-best-part-of-that-movie, Alan-a-dale; and, considering that they were working on the tales of Reynard the Fox, it's likewise fairly obvious, even beyond the stereotypical attributes, how that movie wound up with its vulpine Robin Hood.

It's therefore likely that Robin Hood is where Don Bluth picked up his own highly-mutated strain of Chanticleer fever, which gestated throughout the production of The Secret of NIMH, An American TailThe Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go To Heavenuntil, at long last, it resolved itself in 1992, but only by way of what amounts to a completely different iteration of Chanticleer, this being not the hero of the medieval folk tale, but Edmond Rostand's reimagination of that archetype for his 1910 talking animal play, Chantecler, which was greatly disliked in its time and has only been somewhat rehabilitated since (it's quite possible that it would not have even been staged, nor its memory persist until the present day, except that Rostand died writing it and he was already famous for other, more beloved works).  Well, at least I can say with certainty why Rostand's Chantecler is the way it is: it's a Romanticist message play aimed squarely at a materialist and rapidly secularizing society, written in defense of the necessity of irrational idealism for a contented life.  By contrast, I'm not sure it's even possible to know why Rock-a-doodle, Don Bluth's animated rock-and-roll adaptation of Chantecler, is the way it is, though I suppose that even if nothing about it is ideal, it is at least extremely irrational.  That's a judgment that's hard to avoid with Rock-a-doodle: it's a movie that makes All Dogs Go To Heaven look like a completely coherent narrative, and while I wouldn't absolutely need to mean that with malice, as a Bluth film, its flirtations with something like outright surrealism are somehow boring.  I don't even understand how it manages to be boring, and once we get through the plot, perhaps you will also wonder how it doesn't at least manage to be fervidly bad.

So then: the innovation of Bluth and his story team was to start Rostand's four-act play in Act IV, as well as to resituate it in a 1960s-inflected neverwhen, therefore recasting Rostand's hero in the form of the 60s' pop cultural figure who had made himself as important to our world as Chantecler (or "Chanticleer," as here) was to his Basque Country farm, namely Elvis Presley.  Just like Presleythis was a real problem in the 60sthe sun doesn't even rise without Chanticleer (Glen Campbell) there to greet it with his song.  Or at least that's what Chanticleer thinks, and what everybody on the farm thinks, but of course this is not so, and when a rival rooster engages Chanticleer in a pre-dawn battle, he is kept from his sacred task long enough to realize that the sun will rise without him, whereupon the jeers of the barnyard animals send him off into exile.  In an extremely unclear gesture (and we'll see how ever being "unclear" can be sort of laughlessly funny in this context, regardless of how weird and random the film becomes), the animation appears to show the sun sinking back down below the hillside, saddened that its friend Chanticleer will no longer sing for it, or something.  And then, in Chanticleer's absence, the rains begin, and they do not stop, threatening the farm with destruction.  This is all according to the master plan of the evil one, the Grand Duke of Owls (Christopher Plummer):

I'm sorry, wrong file:

The Grand Duke has plotted to eliminate Chanticleer, for owls love the darkness and the rain, and while I am fairly certain the latter part of this factoid is not true, this is no matter, because our story is presently interrupted to reveal it is, in fact, just a story being told.  So here we get wrenched into the live-action framing narrative of Rock-a-doodle, where young Edmond (a lispy wee lad named Toby Scott Gangerbut now we know how this middle American kid got named "Edmond") is being soothed into sleep by his mother (Kathryn Holcomb).  Outside, a massive storm rages, threatening the existence of their farm as well as Edmond's family's lives.  Edmond has no interest in sleep, for he'd prefer to be a big boy and help, but he's about five, so of course his offers of assistance are refused; nevertheless, inspired by his mother's reading from his storybook, he cries out for Chanticleer to return and save them all.  But now, in a Wizard of Oz kind of deal, the avatar of the storm smashes through Edmond's bedroom wall, and face to face with the Grand Duke, Edmond is magically transformed into a kittenthe better for the great owl to consume his flesh and bones and/or the easier for Sullivan Bluth to integrate him into their cartoonand his farm becomes, through some mysticism, Chanticleer's farm, animation included.  (The transformation of the bedroom from live-action photography into a cartoon is probably the coolest effect in the whole movie, and it's not even as good as the similar transformation of Fievel's pulp-inspired fantasies to his "real" world in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, sufficiently low on the list of cool things the Bluthless American Tail sequel did that I neglected to explicitly point it out in a 3000 word review of a 75 minute film.)

Anyway, we're back to the story in progress: the Grand Duke is distracted by the narrator of Edmond's story-within-the-story (and, evidently, our story-outside-the-story, but let's discuss that later), Patou the hound dog (Phil Harris, both the actor and the design potentially a nod to this film's origins in Robin Hood).  Edmond completes the Grand Duke's temporary banishment with a flashlight, which operates upon the owl as if he's been hit by a train.  The crisis persists, however, in that the farm is in danger of being washed away, and so, after some introductions, the feline Edmond and his new alliesPatou along with Peepers the mouse (Sandy Duncan) and Snipes the magpie (Eddie Deezen, whose entire career really does appear to be "obnoxious-as-fuck twerp")head off to find Chanticleer, who has in fact decamped to The City to become an enormous rock-and-roll superstar overseen by his sinister manager Pinky the fox (Sorrell Brooke), minion of the Grand Duke who will soon see fit to further ensnare his rock idol client with the honey of Goldie the sexy pheasant (Ellen Greene).  But Edmond and friends need to pierce Chanticleer's isolating bubble of fame if they ever want to see a sunny day again.

Okay, that's an awful, awful lot, and while it all feels like a collection of pretty empty ideas in the telling (it takes a long time for a summary, but is virtually presented as a summary already in the film), there are a whole bunch of concepts this movie is trying to fit into its 74 minutes.  There are at least the four really big ones: the Rostand notion of the continuing vitality of myth is kind of still here, albeit reduced to the level of kid's movie boilerplate about self-esteem; a parody of fame and a satire of the popular music industry, deploying the signifiers of the story of Elvis Presley as sourced from a fairly wide swathe of his career; the Wizard of Oz (though my initial thought was "Invaders From Mars") thing that actually turns it into something more like a very shitty, very literal version of The Neverending Story that only manages to track with the little kid's character arc in scenes that were clearly afterthoughts; and, while it might not quite rise to the level of "a concept," this movie's primary operating mode is just the most cookie-cutter funny talking animal cartoon, wherein a hypothetically-amusing set of character traits are thrown into a loosely-drawn slapstick comedy version of a modern world.  (For instance, the climax requires a mouse to fly a helicopter, and Duncan's excited panic over this development probably entails the film's single best line read.)

Some of these thingsI think "rooster Elvis and pheasant Priscilla? Anne-Margaret?" had potentialcould have been their own movie.  None of these things work together here, and they don't work in and of themselves.  It occurs to me I've actually undercounted, there's a fifth concept, "fantasy epic, somehow," and while the Grand Duke is a figure in Rostand's play, he is not a sorcerer who lives in Sauron's tower, but, by golly, that's what Bluth decided he'd be here.  Accordingly, my other candidate for "coolest thing in the movie" is just the perspective-boosted background painting the camera pans over that depicts the owl's 200 foot tall pipe organ, which is at least a very neat piece of kid's horror design in a movie that feels like the only way to even begin to tie this crap together would be "horror."  It doesn't get there, at all, and the Grand Duke is a truly pitiful villain, repeatedly vanquished by flashlights and prone to singing snippets of the film's worst musical numbers, all of them sort of like limericks with barely any musical component and Plummer certainly isn't helping.  (None of its musical numbers, including its showtuned rockabilly numbers, rise above "barely fine," but these are terrible.)  But all this is ultimately probably less important than his designthe Grand Duke of Owls barely resembles "an owl" in the first place (more like a chubby bear in a cape), and his design conveys "evil" less than it does "parody of evil."  Look, he looks like Grandpa Munster.  His villainy is principally effected by his little nephew, Hunch (Charles Nelson Reilly), a comedy owl whose shtick is to shout semi-non sequiturs (nouns that end with the suffix "-ation," e.g., "aggravation"a human person believed this was funny) and evidently intended to ensure that Deezen would somehow not be voicing the most annoying character.  He's sometimes supplemented by a gang of anonymous palette-swapped larger owl henchmen who provide further evidence after All Dogs that Bluth's color style was going south fast, and they're all very disappointing, though the Grand Duke is extremely so from an animator who once brought us that absolute demon of an owl back in The Secret of NIMH, who dripped with antique malevolence and magic, even though he wasn't actually evil.

I would prefer not even getting into all the littler "what the fuck?" insanitiesI will only point out, because it's a medium-sized insanity, that the Grand Duke has some kind of "magic breath," so it looks like he's barfing backlit Lucky Charms upon the child and othersbut of course it's all very hard to take seriously even on the extremely heightened level of "a kid's nightmare."  The big insanity, that really bothers me a lot, is the total unwillingness to confirm either the physical or metaphysical nature of "the sun," or to conform to any nature it's already established.  The film makes its first misstep in its very first framesI don't mean the backlit pink logo on a green galactic fog, but you wouldn't be wrong to think sowith a shot of a sunrise from space.  This exists to set up a slightly impressiveso probably the film's most impressiveanimation sequence, that takes us from "space" to "Chanticleer's bouncing uvula" in a "single" move that uses quick dissolves but, also, what looks like fully-drawn landscape animation, so kudos there.  But this Flat Earth fairy tale about the Goddamn sun refusing to rise is harder to swallow than it should be, when the first image of the film is the sun in space having a full-blown, over-enthusiastically effects-animated Carrington event as it comes up over our big round globe.  (Maybe things are just pre-Copernican.)  That's all trivial, but that sun still remains a distraction: we have the sun not coming up several miles from the City, without that affecting the day-night cycle of the City, and I realize the film is actually telling us that Chanticleer keeps rainclouds from hiding the sun, but that only feels exactly like what it is, a stupid kludge of a solution to the problem of two major scenes that need to geographically trace a path from the City to the farm (and a whole movie that needs the City to go indifferently about its business, yet I'll forward that having the jaded, modernist city folk ignore the arrival of permanent night would further several of the movie's concepts better, including the Grand Duke as a true spirit of darkness rather than "I dunno, magic owl").  How stupid is that kludge?  Well, let me ask you this: DO YOU THINK IT NEVER RAINS ON A FUCKING FARM?

I'm honestly surprised that I can get this exercised writing about it: it's as if actually thinking about Rock-a-doodle will frustrate you, but in the midst of watching it, it's very ordinary and sedate.  That's not, at all, because it follows some inexpressible emotional logic.  I mean, Jesus, it's a movie that can't figure out how to dovetail "basically Satan" and "the music industry" into a cohesive worldview, which is kind of the gimme here (cf. The Phantom of the Paradiseor, though it's much later, just freaking Elvis).  The Grand Duke and Pinky are probably kept carefully separate for a reason; they feel like they've come from completely separate movies.

It should all feel absolutely bananas in its craziness, but it never does, because it's not crazy, it's just sloppy, a kid's movie desperately lashed together at what feels like (and somewhat was) the last minute by Sullivan Bluth, despite the project being in development for almost a decade, and the story plays out pretty much exactly as you'd expect a careless kid's cartoon about a sad rooster rock star would, with various goofy subterfuges undertaken by our sub-U.S. Acres heroes met with over-the-top nonsense countermeasures by our villains.  Take Goldie, as previously noted a "sexy pheasant," which is to say a bird built like an Egyptian deity and drawn with tits and ass filling out a chorus girl costume (pretty much the same design mentality as gigachad Chanticleer, except you're perhaps less apt to notice it with him, and I suppose I'll commit to the two being the best designs in this lot, with the mild caveat that the "30s showgirl" thing, stressed further by Greene's performance, and "60s rocker" don'tlike so many things here!actually jibe).  But she doesn't feel dangerous in any way: she should be abhorrent, but she's just there, serving basically no function whatsoever now, except to appease the legion of eight year olds who would have left unsatisfied if their favorite character from an old French play didn't make it into their cartoon.  Even describing this as "functional" kid's cartoon storytelling would be going too far, however; the film was renovated right before release to address its distributor Goldcrest's (justified) worries it made no sense, by way of Patou providing reams and fucking reams of narrationHarris's voice is constantly weaving in and out, overexplaining things we've seen and describing scenes that aren't actually hereand the ultimate effect is that it comes off like the film is cheating, and also making itself worse, by further domesticating what ought to feel nuts, by interrupting whatever choppy flow it's established, and sometimes by just weirdly spoiling shit outright, like mentioning that Goldie is actually good in her introduction.

That leaves it as a work of animation, and while I've mentioned some good thingsI'll even mention one more, I like the exaggerated construction of the pink Cadillacthis is at best only mediocre in form, often dragged down to "just plain ugly" by the generally poor and underdetailed design, plus that utter shitshow of a story.  The average of it feels like barely a rung over TV animation, and it achieves that mainly by not having blatant mistakes like missing parts of characters' bodies or anything.  (There's some discussion of how it was animated in full-frame and matted for theatrical release, and I assume this doesn't helpI watched it in widescreenbut I'm frankly not interested enough to try to compare the two.)  In any event, theatrical audiences rejected it, even without the complicating factor of a Disney release on the same weekend (and so Bluth, or Goldcrest, had learned something from their mistakes; though it still wound up releasing just a week before FernGully).  It found second life, however, on VHS tapes purchased by undiscerning parents for children they did not love, so while between this and All Dogs Go To Heaven enormous damage had been done, at least Sullivan Bluth wasn't out of the game yet.  I will charitably assume that even if it's quite a while before his brief comeback, this will at least remain Don Bluth's lowest point, because it is, anyway, hard to imagine how he could get worse.

Score: 1/10


  1. "...this will at least remain Don Bluth's lowest point, because it is, anyway, hard to imagine how he could get worse."

    Be careful, A Troll in Central Park isn't far in the future.

    1. I know, but I assume...

      Yeah, I shouldn't assume anything. I wonder if Titan AE will be any good?

      Happily, at least for the next cartoon, I'm switching back to Disney in its single finest four year period.