Of all the movies I watched obsessively as a kid, the films of Don Bluth spurred in me a unique, illicit joy. While Disney movies (which I also adored) felt safe and fluffy, animated adventures like An American Tail, The Secret of NIMH, Rock-A-Doodle, Thumbelina and Anastasia felt scruffy, risky, and thrillingly mature. Bluth didn’t sanitize his stories, and instead leaned into elements of sex, pain, and crime that Disney delicately danced away from. I felt like an edgy eight-year-old watching All Dogs Go to Heaven. I felt cool. In the know. And also, I relished in how bonkers Bluth movies dared to be with their sexy rat soldiers, nightmarish cats, and reanimated corpses of infamous historical figures.
Nostalgia for all of the above drew me back to revisit All Dogs Go To Heaven. I remembered it being weird. But man, Bluth went all kinds of next level bizarre. Here’s the logline:
A dog returns from the dead looking for revenge on his killer using an orphan girl who can talk to animals.
Remember, this is a kid-friendly romp, not a horror movie.
Hot off the rousing successes of An American Tail and The Land Before Time, you can imagine Bluth feeling confident in taking a risk with the unusual story of a bad dog (voiced by Burt Reynolds, because naturally), who returns from the dead and uses an orphan as his tool for revenge against the very bad dog that murdered him. But watching the trailer, you might also understand why parents were hesitant to take their kids to this holiday release, and how All Dogs Go to Heaven scored one of the worst opening weekends of all time.
But bygones. Come with me as I re-watch and revel over the odd alchemy of 1989’s All Dogs Go to Heaven.
Set in a Louisiana Bayou in 1939, the movie begins with two con
men dogs in the midst of a jail pound break that gets them repeatedly shot at by offscreen weapons that put massive craters in the dirt path they skitter away on. Let me say that again: This movie for children begins with its heroes being chased with heavy artillery gunfire while they commit a crime.
Then we leap to Charlie’s casino, where a metaphorically underground but literal rat race heats up, with dogs barking and betting. A rat name Squad Car wins, and is embraced by his owner, a canine in a police officer’s cap.
So, this is a world where dogs not only gamble, but also cop dogs are corrupt. (For kids!) Also in this sequence, we learn that dogs place bets with meat. But later, Charlie seeks money. Because meat’s great for bets, but to build a new casino you need cash. I guess.
Free and frisky, Charlie bursts into song. Listen to this.
Potentially peak All Dogs WTF: Burt Reynolds cannot sing.
I don’t mean he can’t sing well. I mean Burt Reynolds cannot sing at all. This is a spoken word song number, and the first of several, each more inexplicable than the next. I wish I were in the room for the decision making here.
“Burt, we’ll need you to sing. Do you sing?”
Burt flashes a smile, and that winsome cackle.
Did Bluth think Reynolds’ charisma was so overpowering people wouldn’t notice he carries a tune like like a sieve carries water? Did the director fear pointing this out would spook Reynolds out of the role? Or did he think Reynolds’ inability to sing was part of Charlie’s charm? I marvel. I’m not mad at it. In a sense, it speaks to Charlie’s ego and how it shields/blinds him from the unpleasant realities around him. Like that his partner, Carface Carruthers, wants him dead.
Following a short but requisite Mardi Gras sequence, complete with busty dancers and abandoned parade floats, Charlie is murdered. Drunk, blindfolded and yowling in oblivious song, he’s poised for Carface to run him down with a car. While the build up is dread-inducing, the murder itself is blessedly brief. It’s a quick—though clunky—cut, before Charlie is whisked through water and bubbles to heaven! There we meet a strangely sexy Whippet angel.
Also, there are giant diamonds laying around. You know, for dogs.
True to his junkyard dog roots, Charlie frequently bares his teeth in scary snarls. As a kid, I may have cringed. But also, it helped me read that Charlie was angry and, yeah, a bit of a bad dog. So it works. Unrelated: Charlie’s name is Charlie B. Barkin. Just know that.
You know the deal: Charlie steals his way out of heaven and back to Earth so he can get revenge on his shady ex-partner, and get rich. So how to do that? Kidnap Carface’s pet orphan Anne-Marie, whose Doctor Doolittle ability to talk to all animals allows her to get the inside track on various races, from rat to horse. Again: the hero kidnaps a child. And then he uses her desire to find a forever home to manipulate her to do his evil bidding. When Charlie sees her, his eyes literally turn to dollar signs.
Later, this quirky trio—which includes Charlie’s devoted (and arguably besotted) buddy Itchy (Dom DeLuise)—meets some could-be parents for Anne-Marie at the horse track, where Charlie robs them to score enough scratch to bet on birthday stud the Grand Chawhee. Also this happens:
Yeah, this clip is in Hebrew, but the visuals here are the important part. First off, look at the start again. EVERYONE IN LINE IS DANCING. That’s how stoked they all are to gamble. Also everyone is so focused on their own bets they pay no mind to the complete insanity in a trench coat tangoing by and unhygienically sharing ice cream.
The more I watch this, the more I realize I would totally wear an untattered version of Anne-Marie’s outfit. Hot Topic, get on it.
Charlie’s a cad, but Carface is a monster. He tortures his lackey with piranhas, and then gets all giddy over the idea of murdering Charlie (again) with a ray gun.
Then we discover the cheesiest pizza to ever. I want to go to here.
But too much dairy is bad for dogs. In Charlie it incites a Bluth-styled nightmare, complete with tornado, lava, and demons. Hell. He goes to hell.
Shortly after, Carface fires on him with a raygun, decimating a fruit market and suggesting that Charlie is immortal as long as his clock keeps ticking. Because Charlie is hit. Repeatedly. But his life isn’t threatened until his watch gets wet.
Next he meets a giant gator (because Louisiana), who is worshiped by a tribe of bone-wearing rats who “talk funny.” (#problematic) Here’s where the Reynolds singing thing is at its most bizarre. King Gator (Ken Page) loves Charlie’s voice. So they “sing” a “duet.” What is happening.
Meanwhile, Itchy was getting the shit kicked out of him by Carface, and Charlie’s new casino is set ablaze. Also Anne-Marie is maybe dying. Because Don Bluth doesn’t pull his punches on the low point.
Hang on. Charlie died during Mardi Gras and now Carface has got a candy cane.
Is it Christmas? How long has he been keeping Anne-Marie in a junkyard? Or does Carface just keep candy canes around his beached battleship lair because he has a sweet tooth. Better question, why does he keep towers of gasoline barrels around? Do dogs need or understand the need for gasoline? Was clearing them out on Carface’s renovation to-do list? Was his neglect of this presumed to-do list meant as another fatal flaw of his character?
Charlie sacrifices his life for Anne-Marie. But because he broke out of heaven, he can “never go back,” right? Thankfully, hell has a liberal visiting policy. So Charlie returns to Earth to say goodbye to Anne-Marie (but not to poor unrequited Itchy). Meanwhile, the dog/dragon/demon lingers huge and menacing over New Orleans.
That is until angel Whippet’s blue bubble blows him to bits, and calls the newly minted good dog home. I’m not crying. YOU’RE CRYING.
As a kid, I loved Bluth movies because of how they refused to talk down to me, and showed me weirder, darker stories than Disney dared. As an adult, I’m astonished that my parents let me watch them at all, much less repeatedly. But I’m grateful and glad they did. I like to think steeping my impressionable brain in such strange and unusual storytelling made me the person I am today. To pull from another of my childhood favorites:
Kristy Puchko wonders what Carface had to do to get back in dog heaven’s good graces.