director Don Bluth, Dan Kuenster and Gary Goldman
After recently re-watching Don Bluth’s terrific animated feature The Secret of NIMH (1982), I was reminded that for no really good reason, I had abandoned Bluth’s films after that. In reality, I guess it was simple unjustified prejudice. An American Tail (1984) looked cloying to me and The Land Before Time (1988), well, I’m still trying to decide if I can stomach that one. And in a similar slant, All Dogs Go to Heaven seemed exactly like the kind of thing that would sicken and annoy me.
It’s the title taken literally, I suppose. One way or another, I never managed to see any of the films. Now, I’m making my reparations, my personal reparations.
It turns out that All Dogs Go to Heaven isn’t at all the cloying schmaltz that I had projected upon it. In reality, it’s a gritty nearly noirish flick, set in Depression Era New Orleans and really is a bit of an A Matter of Life and Death (1946) via cartoon canines.
When a scrappy German Shepherd named Charlie gets rubbed out by his old partner and finds that indeed “all dogs do go to heaven,” he sneaks his way back to Earth to exact some revenge. His revenge turns out to be abducting his arch nemesis’s ace in the hole, an orphan girl who can talk to animals and know who is going to win horse or rat races. This girl, Anne-Marie, is a lost orphan looking for a home and in the end Charlie does have to risk his life and a trip to hell to save her.
The animation is lush and beautiful traditional cel work. And actually, the film feels like something of an older era. The fact that it came out in 1989 seems almost a misprint. This is a rich, traditional American piece, not modernized like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) or The Little Mermaid (1989) or any of the Disney renaissance.
Also highly odd is some of the voice casting. Not odd bad, but odd good. Burt Reynolds plays Charlie, with Dom DeLuise voicing his buddy Itchy, and even Loni Anderson throwing in a voice too. This is the most 1989 thing about it. But there is also the excellent Vic Tayback as Carface, the villain and Charles Nelson Reilly as Killer, a very oddly-designed character.
Sadly, the voice of the orphan Anne-Marie belonged to the young Judith Barsi. She’s very good and cute, but the sadness is in her real life. She was murdered by her psychotic and abusive father before the film was even released, dead at the age of 10. Horrible and bizarre.
There is music, too. Tolerable if rather unmemorable tunes.
Really, though, the whole design and characters are rich and strange and lushly done. There are a couple of moments of racial stereotypes that truly seem to emanate from another era, most prominently, the huge-lipped gator/voodoo witch doctor. It’s amazing there wasn’t more blow-back from that character.
Overall, it’s a very fine animated feature. My prejudice against it seems utterly unfounded and foolish. I believe that we’ll be visiting other Don Bluth films in the coming months, a well-deserved re-appraisal.