“All dogs go to heaven because, unlike people, dogs are naturally good and loyal and kind.”
I said back in my Anastasia review that All Dogs Go To Heaven was quite possibly Don Bluth’s last hit before the 1997 movie. I guess what I mean by “hit” is that it actually made money. This movie, released in 1989, grossed 47M, compared to twice that for An American Tail (made right before this movie), on par with The Land Before Time, and crushing 1991’s “Rock-a-Doodle” with 11.7M. So I was right in saying it legitimately was Don Bluth’s last hit (at least before Anastasia).
So many people I’ve talked to over the years simply adore this movie. It makes them cry. They love the characters. They love the songs. They love the message. And honestly? until this last watch through, I never got it. I think that was because of my parents. I remember them not letting me watch this movie as a kid. I don’t want to say I resented them for it, but I do remember getting a bit annoyed because friends would talk about Charlie or Itchy or Carface and I’d literally have no idea what they were talking about. I didn’t see it till I was older, and even then I wasn’t that impressed. I took a giant hiatus (the last time I saw it was probably literally more than 10 years ago) then decided it was time to try again. This was the test. Was I missing something that everyone else seems to have gotten out of this movie?
Turns out, I was. I’ve mentioned before how brilliant I think some of Don Bluth’s early stuff really was. He had the ability to be dark without being nightmare inducing. He had the ability to explain hard things in a way kids could understand. He (sometimes) has an amazing way with characters; they’re not always perfect, but they’re real. All Dogs is probably the last of those movies for Don Bluth, and it acts more as a bridge in my opinion between his good movies of the late 80s and his (in my opinion) crap of the early to mid 90s. As such, there are some really great things about this movie, and some really not so great/signs of crazy things to come.
I do want to start by pointing out that my parents were right not to show this to me when I was younger. After watching it, i’ve decided there’s no way I’m going to show this my kids. Not until they’re older. Not only are these tough concepts for a kid to wrap their head around, but the whole plot hinges around gambling, death, murder, revenge, smoking, etc. Not exactly what you want every kid in the world watching. So yeah. Mom and Dad, I understand. Thanks for keeping me naive.
Alright, so on to All Dogs. In true Don Bluth fashion, we have an extremely hard concept at the core of this plot. Our main character, a German Shepard named Charlie, escapes from “prison” (aka the pound) after a stint of who knows how long and returns to his rat race-track casino-thing to find out that his previous partner Carface likes the way things have been going without him and doesn’t want to be partners any more. He then murders Charlie by having him run over by a car on a dock while he’s drunk (ah yes… there’s drinking in this too), and Charlie is sent to heaven, because All Dogs Go To Heaven: they’re loyal, selfless, etc. However Charlie isn’t ok with this and wants nothing more but revenge on his old partner. So he grabs his “life watch” and winds it up again, sending him down to earth, the angel whippet exclaiming “you can never come back!”
Obsessed with beating his old partner at his own game, he and his pal Itchy figure out why it is Carface’s business has been going so well. They have an orphan girl, Anne Marie, captive who can talk to animals and figure out who’s going to win each of the races. Struck with a brilliant idea, Charlie pretends to “rescue” Anne Marie and instead uses her skills for his own gain, all the while lying to her, telling her that the money they won will help her find a new family. Eventually Carface finds out Charlie has Anne Marie, and she in turn finds out Charlie has been lying to her. But of course by now Charlie has actually come to care for the girl, and in the end even sacrifices his own life to save hers.
I don’t care how smart you say your kid is: that’s a hard plot for kids to follow. It’s a very adult plot; too adult. The idea of life and death has been handled before by Bluth, and handled well. I know he’s trying to deal with the whole “what if we could change things” and the idea that, as the title says, All dogs DO go to heaven (it just might take them a few lives..). It’s heaven and hell. It’s just… I don’t know… I feel like it’s just too much for kids to handle. A kid wouldn’t actually understand this plot, whereas all kids understand Littlefoot and the loss of his mother. Is that because they can relate to littlefoot and they can’t to charlie? I dunno. Just a thought.
Let’s talk about Charlie for a moment, because I actually completely adore this character. Like Cera from The Land Before Time, he’s real, complicated, and painted in quite a depth. In the beginning of the movie he’s a selfish sleezebag. He’s out to get people’s money, but at the same time, the way he treats the other dogs in his joint point out that he does have a good heart somewhere deep in there. He’s legitimately pissed that he died, thinks it happened too early, and wants to cheat because he’s not done and wants revenge. Once Anne Marie enters the picture and we see him pretending to be nice to her, we know he’s just pretending. Then something happens. He actually starts caring about her, even though he tells everyone else he hasn’t. As a viewer, you can tell he does. But he plays it so well that even I was second guessing myself.
The moment he actually begins caring about her is subtle, and I could honestly see a lot of people missing it, then at the end going “wait… he actually does care about her?” yeah. You just have to pay attention. It happens when she talks him into being like Robin Hood and using some of the money to help the poor. They go visit a family of dogs that lives in a church and has nothing. There’s almost a dozen puppies, and he brings them pizza. He teaches them about sharing, and their mother makes a comment about how she never sees him around like she used to. This is what makes Charlie so interesting. We get hints that he wasn’t always a sleezebag. We get hints that he really is good deep down. It’s almost like when he’s there, something wakes up. He suddenly worries when Anne Marie is missing. Suddenly, he’s lying to her about stealing a wallet and trying to get her to leave the nice people’s house and go with him because… does he want to keep using her to get ahead? Or does he really not want her to stay there? You really can’t tell, and that’s what’s so great. He’s a tough guy on the outside that really has a soft spot for this girl, but he doesn’t want anyone to know. But things happen that make him choose. He chooses to be sweet to her when he doesn’t have to be. He chooses to go after her when Carface takes her back, knowing full well it’s a trap. And he chooses to save her when his watch falls in the water, ending his life for the final time. He’s a great character.
Our other main characters are good and memorable too. Anne Marie is a sweet naive little girl who wants nothing more than a family, but knows the difference between good and bad. She’s written as a good Don Bluth kid, channeling the similarities between real kids very well. (Geez I love that first scene where she’s trying to fall asleep!). Itchy, Charlie’s friend, is loyal to the end, not understanding why his boss is so into this little girl, and just wants to not be in trouble anymore with Carface. Then there’s carface. He honestly reminds me of a mafia man. He’s Don Corleone’s dog. He’s a scary villain that will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if he has to kill for it.
Those are the great and ok things about the movie. The plot IS good but hard to follow/understand for a kid, and the characters are good but again I feel like charlie is way to complicated for kids. The other characters aren’t. They’re good and kids can understand them and laugh and smile and cower in fear with what’s happening to them.
So far it’s like a normal Don Bluth movie, albeit a bit more ramped up with complicatedness. That’s arguably no different than The Secret of Nimh, which I swear I still don’t understand completely (other then again…. AMAZING main character there). So where are the signs of Bluth falling off the deep end?
I have one sentence to say: Big-Lipped Alligator. Anyone familiar with this movie will know exactly what I’m talking about. About 3/4 through the movie, there is a VERY random scene where Charlie and Anne Marie get kidnapped by tribal mice and set up as sacrifices to an alligator, but when Charlie sings, he forgets about eating them and instead just wants to sing with them. This scene happens, they swim off together, and literally… THAT’S IT. It is so completely randomly stuck in there! It’s not at all with the rest of the tone of the movie that it sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s bright and colorful while the rest of the movie is drab. The only reason I can fathom that it exists is that Don Bluth needed some plot device to come in 15 minutes later and rescue Charlie and help in the demise of Carface (yeah, he gets eaten). That’s the ONLY REASON I can think of why this alligator even exists! It’s so random, so NOT the tone of the rest of the movie, it’s out of place and bizarre! It’s just… it’s weird.
I should rephrase that. At that point in bluth’s career it was weird. Going forward, we would see more and more of this weird stuff. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if he ran out of ideas or what. But it’s sad that the beginnings of it had to come in this movie.
Very random before I tie up: I find it very interesting that these songs from this movie are not available to buy ANYWHERE. Not iTunes, not amazon, I think they seriously never sold it. Someone out there probably has a tape or ripped it from the actual movie. That is the only way this music is going to get onto your computer. And it’s a shame, because this music is catchy. I totally remembered almost all of these songs. More so than An American Tail. That’s saying something.
So here we go: I don’t recommend this movie for young kids. There’s a lot of adult themes and adult stuff. Like I mentioned before, the whole plot centers around gambling and murder. It’s a bit much. BUT… for older kids or even adults, I suggest watching it if you’ve never seen it, or if it’s been a while. This one often gets overlooked, but it has it’s many followers, myself included. I really do like this movie, and the real reason is because of Charlie. It’s a dark movie with dark style and an Amazingly complex central character. It’s worth a watch, but I’m a fan
I give All Dogs Go To Heaven (1989) 4 out of 5 stars.
Next up: The Brave Little Toaster (then I promise we’ll be out of the really old animated movies!)