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JTurner's Review of All Dogs Go to Heaven

rated it: posted: Dec 14, 2008
Reviews: 9 | Fledgling Reviewer
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Around the late 1970's, animator Don Bluth, frustrated with the output his company, Disney was churning, defected from the Mouse House to form his own studio. His first production, THE SECRET OF NIMH, was a brilliant feature that still holds up well to this day. This was followed by AN American TAIL and THE LAND BEFORE TIME, both of which were made under the involvement of Steven Spielberg and were commercially successful. Although none of those two films had the dark adult appeal of NIMH, they still are very charming, enjoyable features for both children and grown-ups. But before long, Don Bluth had his first major misfire with ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN; critics were especially harsh on this film, and matters weren't helped by the fact that it opened alongside Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID.

Considering that the movie has such a friendly-sounding title, one would expect ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN to be pleasant family fare. Instead Bluth provides a surprisingly dark story involving gambling, deceit, crime, mistreatment, and murder. That itself is not a problem for an animated feature per say, but it does call into question over whether the film is for children. On the other hand, it's hard to say whether adults will find much to enjoy in ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN. In short, it's a movie with a major identity crisis.

Set in a dreary junkyard of New Orleans, the movie starts out when Charlie B. Barkin, a rough-and-tumble German shepherd, is run over by a car courtesy of his former gambling casino partner, a nasty, cigar-puffing pitbull, Carface. Before you know it, Charlie finds himself in heaven, albeit by default. Here a whippet angel, Annabelle, tells him that "all dogs go to heaven because unlike people, dogs are usually loyal and kind." This line represents the confused nature of the movie, since the dogs in the movie, the whippet aside, are presented as anything but.

Upon realizing that he's been murdered, Charlie steals his way back to Earth and plots to get even with Carface. With the reluctant help of his dachshund pal Itchy, Charlie "rescues" Carface's prize, AnneMarie, a human girl who can talk to animals (in order to predict who will win the rat races). Charlie claims that he will help the little cutie find her a family, but in reality he is using her skills to win fortunes at the race so that he can build a more elaborate casino of his own to bring Carface down. Although he refuses to admit it, Charlie does grow to love AnneMarie...

The concept of the story isn't as problematic as the execution. Aside from the human girl AnneMarie and a flamboyant musical alligator who appears about three-quarters through (with the vocal pipes of Ken Page), none of the other characters emerge as likable, nor frankly, are even worth caring about. Unfortunately, that also applies to Charlie; in trying to make him an anti-hero, the script (composed by more than ten writers) only succeeds in rendering the character TOO unlovable. As such, the audience feels no empathy for Charlie, and worse, his redemption at the end of the movie does not come across as convincing. (Further damaging to the character is the disappointingly uncharismatic vocal performance from Burt Reynolds.) Besides the lack of an endearing lead, the movie's other problem is in the structure of the story. The slowly-paced plot jumps all over the place and makes a habit of throwing in extra scenes which serve no purpose but to pad out the movie's running time. The aforementioned musical alligator (who resides in a danky sewer infested with native rats) seems to have been thrown in from nowhere, as does a scene where Charlie tries to show his generosity to AnneMarie by feeding a pack of pastel-colored pups pizza. The whole screenplay feels like a rough first draft; a bit more polish could have made this a tighter, impactful story.

Matters are not helped by the lackluster musical numbers by Charlie Strouse and T.J. Kuenster (AnneMarie's song and the gator's ballad are the only good ones; the latter in particular benefits from Ken Page's mellifluous vocal) or the uneven voice cast. As mentioned, Burt Reynolds' stiff and lifeless Charlie detracts from his already unlikeable character even further (the only exception is a fiery confession to Itchy about his true intentions toward the end). Dom DeLuise as Itchy is pretty good, but he's had better roles, notably Tiger in AN American TAIL and Jeremy in THE SECRET OF NIMH. Ken Page, as mentioned, is awesome in anything he does, but his character has such a small part that his overall contribution is unremarkable at best. Similarly wasted are Loni Anderson (as a collie who once sired a litter with Charlie), Melba Moore, and Charles Nelson Reilly. Judith Barsi as AnneMarie is probably the only voice that comes across as truly memorable, partially because her character is the sole legitimately likable one in this depressing and joyless show.

Barsi aside, the only real positive about ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN is the animation. Technically, this film has some of the most imaginative visuals from Bluth's team (by 1980's standards, that is), particularly a frightening scene where Charlie has a nightmare about ending up in a fiery underworld ruled by a gargantuan satanic canine-demon. If anything, the movie is more of a triumph of animation than storytelling.

On the whole, however, I cannot recommend ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN as good entertainment. Even though I recognize that the movie has its fans and the climax does admittingly provide some energy and a moving conclusion, the overall package is not in the same league as Bluth's better efforts. Animation buffs will marvel at the lush artistry, but by the time it's over, ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN could very well leave a bad taste in your mouth.

animated movie All Dogs Go to Heaven © Don Bluth
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All Dogs Go to Heaven
3.21 stars / 19 ratings
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