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« Look Who's Talking (1989) and the Perils of Revisiting Childhood Faves | Main | Yes, No, Maybe So: Men, Women & Children »
Thursday
Aug212014

Tim's Toons: All Dogs Go to Heaven, the strangest animated film of 1989

Tim here. We’re talking 1989 this month at the Film Experience, and as any dabbler in the history of animation knows, 1989 is most important for being the year that Walt Disney Feature Animation get back on track after some two decades in the wilderness with the smashing success of the fairy tale musical The Little Mermaid.

That’s not what we’re here to talk about. The Little Mermaid doesn’t need me: it’s a stone-cold all-time classic that everybody reading this has an opinion on already. Instead, I would like to take you to the other animated feature that opened on November 17, 1989, and which crumpled in the face of Mermaid’s juggernaut performance at the box office. That day, y’see, also bore witness to All Dogs Go to Heaven, a film which shriveled up and died in the face of Disney's singing crabs and diva octopodes.

This was the fourth feature made by Don Bluth, who had once been the heir-apparent to the Disney studios until he fled that company during the joyless production of The Fox and the Hound in 1979. Throughout the ‘80s, he and his succession of companies had represented an old-fashioned, back-to-basics alternative to the confused, often unpleasant films Disney was miserably trying to hawk, and his two biggest successes – 1986’s An American Tail and 1988’s The Land Before Time – found him effectively beating his old employers at their own game.

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Once Disney found its footing, though, it was all over. All Dogs Go to Heaven tanked, and Bluth’s only subsequent film of any real impact was Anastasia, which he made in 1997 as a journeyman at Fox. And as much as I’m fond of Disney’s run of films in the 1990s that left Bluth in this lurch, I’ve always been very sad at what happened. Bluth’s films are far more idiosyncratic and weird than anything Disney made, often to their extreme detriment. But when they’re working, there’s a real delight to the oddball situations and unrepentant grotesquerie of the character designs.

Grotesques are something All Dogs certainly has in abundance: among the few things the film remains generally well-known for is its nonsensical narrative layover with a musical-loving alligator who looks like this:

But there’s a good deal of sugary sweetness, too. The film’s hallucinatory plot involves a dead German Shepherd conman named Charlie (voiced by Burt Reynolds) who escape from heaven to get revenge on his unscrupulous bulldog business partner Carface (Vic Tayback), by stealing Anne-Marie (Judith Barsi), a human girl with an ability to communicate with animals of all species, that Carface has been exploiting to help him fix races. The more I go into it, the more insane I’ll sound. There are laser guns at one point. So I’ll content myself with saying that Anne-Marie’s totally guileless affection for all creation leads her to latch onto Charlie as a savior and benefactor, and eventually she melts his caustic, cynical doggy heart.

Absolute kiddie-flick boilerplate, but the grimness that saturates so much of All Dogs Go to Heaven keeps its descent into warm fuzzies from feeling too obnoxious; in fact, it’s even a bit of a relief. The contrast between the hard edge of things like a Hell nightmare and a fixation on death, the saccharine emotions, and the overwhelming ‘30s-ness of the plot, with its Depression-style gangsters (and Anne-Marie’s character design, a clear throwback to animation in the ‘30s) are what drives the film: it’s inhumane and tender, distressing and funny, and whether it’s working or not, it’s certainly not like anything else that Western animation was producing at that time. The closest that I can come up with are some of the more enthusiastically weird Flesicher cartoons from the ‘30s, but the style here is far more polished, and that contrast, too, feeds the movie’s unnerving energy.

Personally, I find it all quite deliciously off-kilter: it’s different and dangerous in ways that most mainstream cartooning is terrified of (though I think that the film would feel a lot more comfortable alongside some of the weird tangents of modern-day animation than it could have at any point in the 20th Century). Although I concede that it’s also tremendously alienating in a lot of ways, and will probably never be rediscovered as a lost classic. It’s beautifully animated, at times, and refreshingly unconventional in a most convention-bound medium; but above everything else, it’s weird. For it to be the end of Bluth’s functional career on the A-list is sad, but totally unsurprising. I’m just pleased that he got to push out one last obviously personal project before the bottom fell out, and if The Little Mermaid ultimately set in stone a path for animation to follow that it still hasn’t shaken off entirely, 25 years later, All Dogs Go to Heaven proudly, perversely stands as a sign pointing to a much darker road not taken.

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Reader Comments (12)

one of the things i never understood about the Bluth films is the "grotesquerie" you mention. The character designs are often so unendearing which is weird because it's not like he's pushing the envelope in content that much.

p.s. i have never seen this movie.

August 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

This is another one of those kid's movies not really suited for kids. Yet too kiddie for adults. All Dogs Go To Heaven and Little Monsters should make an MGM/UA double feature of 1989 inappropriateness.

Nathan the only you haven't seen that you should see with immediacy is 1999's Cruel Intentions.

August 21, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

This movie made me cry when I first saw it when I was like, 4. I burst into tears because I just couldn't deal with it. This was moments after I had a full on meltdown watching The Nightmare Before Christmas because they were hurting Santa.

It was an awkward Christmas Eve at Grandma's.

August 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKacey

I've seen and loved all the films you mentioned -- had no idea who this guy was though. There's definitely a similar theme running through all his films. They're classics for millennials born in the 80s, for sure.

August 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBia

My sister loved this movie so much that I was forced to watch it repeatedly as a pre-teen, so whatever love or like I had for the film when I first watched it melted away after the 100th viewing. But, I do remember melting into a puddle of tears when Anne-Marie says Charlie's name near the end. I also remember being strangely excited that Burt's wife at the time, Loni Anderson was a voice in the movie as I loved her as a kid on WKRP in Cincinnati.

I was in the desired age demographic when I saw An American Tail and The Land Before Time though (my younger sister loved those too, especially the Land Before Time's many annoying sequels), yet I always knew that it wasn't a Disney film due to the animation colors. I do remember thinking the quality of the animation sucked in All Dogs Go to Heaven and that it lacked a certain oomph. It didn't matter to my sister of course.

August 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJames

I identified so strongly with Anne-Marie (for obvious reasons) that I used to pretend I could communicate with ghost dogs, too. My first dog had died when I was fairly young, so I pretended I was walking her, or talking with her, or fighting bad guys with her. Turns out ghost dogs are way easier to take care of than real dogs.

Also, this movie is on my list of Children's Films That Scarred My Childhood, along with The Brave Little Toaster, Land Before Time, and Hocus Pocus.

Lovely analysis as usual, Tim!

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

This was one of the first films I ever saw in theaters and I loved it. Were it not for the Little Mermaid, I think my parents would have been tormented by daily viewings of All Dogs Go to Heaven for years instead.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

This was always one of my favorite animated films, but it's sad to think about now that I know Judith Barsi had already been murdered by the time this film was released. She was only 10, that's so awful.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBrittani

Other films to scar your childhood:
FernGully
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ( I dreamt about that giant squid for decades!)

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

Leslie19 - Also add to that list Child's Play, which my dad fell asleep watching one night when I was little, and which may go a way towards explaining why I didn't like dolls all that much.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

I didn't know the child actress who voiced the little girl was murdered before the completion and release of the film. Makes the whole thing all the more devastating. She's a heartbreaking presence.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Ah, this is a film I won't forget, but maybe it was because I watched everything of that era. AMAZING review...didn't know anything about that filmmaker, but he's got a lot of great stuff. I always forget the nostalgia of the setting of New Orleans the film holds :)

August 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

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