A canine angel, Charlie, sneaks back to earth from heaven but ends up befriending an orphan girl who can speak to animals. In the process, Charlie learns that friendship is the most heavenly gift of all.
Charlie B. Barkin (Burt Reynolds), a rascally German Shepherd with a shady past, breaks out of the New Orleans Dog Pound with the help of his faithful friend Itchy (Dom De Luise), a nervously hyperactive dachshund. He then makes tracks to reunite with his gambling casino partner Carface Malone (Vic Tayback), a shifty pitbull who has planned a dastardly, and potentially deadly, double cross. Suddenly, Charlie finds himself at the Pearly Gates, face to face with the Heavenly Whippet (Melba Moore). Charlie weasels his way back to earth and reunites with Itchy. He plots his revenge against Carface and, along the way, acquires help from a little girl named Anne-Marie (who can talk to animals). After a series of fiendish schemes, close scrapes and unexpected adventures, both Charlie and Anne Marie find their lives at stake. Only one can be saved and the outcome is in Charlie's paws...
Ever had a feature film where you really don't know how to feel about it? You don't hate it by any means, but you also don't really love it all that much either? For me, it's Don Bluth's All Dogs go to Heaven. Noted to be the first Don Bluth feature made after his brief stint with Steven Spielberg (which got him to beat Disney at their own game), the film was practically slaughtered on its original release by The Little Mermaid, although it did gain a massive cult following on home video. In spite of that however, many critics of Bluth's work have stated this marked the beginning of his dark period, and even I can see why.
The film tells the story of Charlie B. Barkin, a casino gambling German Shepherd who gets murdered by his former partner, Carface Carruthers, but leaves Heaven to go to Earth with a rewindable watch. On Earth, he and his best friend, Itchy Itchiford, get back at Carface by using a young orphan girl named Anne-Marie, who teaches them an important lesson about kindness, friendship and love. What sounds convoluted plot-wise is even more muddled in the execution, as the film goes from an inner world in New Orleans with dogs who plot and scheme one-another to then having this orphan child come in out of left field. Throughout the feature, the initial goal of Charlie getting back at his foe feels almost sidelined to focus more on Anne-Marie, as if the filmmakers couldn't make up their minds on how to drive the narrative forward. What's even more frustrating is that both archs work well on their own: the revenge angle presents some fun concepts in this world where dogs coincide on their own and Anne-Marie's presence helps provide the feature with a good amount of heart and emotions. It's just unfortunate that the jumbled tone on deciding whether it wants to be serious or light hearted got in the way of a cohesive story.
Now in terms of characters, Charlie himself comes off more unlikable than the film may have intended. Even when he learns about the meaning of kindness, his actions towards Anne-Marie feel undeserved and rather petty. Yes he's meant to be the wise cracking con artist with a heart of gold, but there are times when his bitterness to others is more mean spirited than necessary. Meanwhile, Itchy is a charming albeit neurotic comedic relief, Carface and Killer are the generic smart and dumb villain types, and anyone else. If any credit must be given to the voice actors, Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise make a great duo as Charlie and Itchy, as their improvisational banter and sardonic remarks are more entertainmenting than most of what goes on in the feature. Also, in spite of this being the last film for child actress Judith Barsi, the sincerity she gave in her performance as Anne-Marie feels like that of a genuinely innocent child who understands right and wrong and wants someone who will love and care for her. I guess for every mangy trait, these characters do have some good in them after all.
Of course, being a Don Bluth film, you're going to have gorgeous visuals, although here it comes with a mixed bag. On one hand, it's cool to have the dogs look and act in a more exaggerated and cartoony manner than the more realistic humans presented, but at times the animals look so exaggerated to the point of looking unappealing and they can't decide whether they want to walk on all fours or be anthropomorphic. Alternatively, the backgrounds are rich in detail, color and atmosphere, whether they be the gorgeous Louisiana landscapes, the surreal dreamlike heaven and hell, or even the abstract multicolor environments with strange creatures (like one such alligator). Also, there are some really bizarre edits in this film, as in you'll get a key shot of a sequence and then it will go away to another shot that will last less than five seconds (seriously, blink and you'll miss some stuff). Lastly, the musical numbers are what I like to call entertaining show stoppers, because as upbeat and catchy as they can be, most of them stop the story dead in its tracks and could have been cut out altogether.
So in the end, All Dogs remains a well intentioned albeit disjointed and somewhat jumbled hodgepodge with a mix of positives and negatives. For every intriguing and freshly new concept, luscious animation, likable character and fun filled song, there's a competing sub plot, bad archetype, questionable filmmaking choice and weak execution that makes the experience feel all over the place. I do recommend this film to a family audience and especially Don Bluth fans, because as scattered as the film feels in its presence, it does offer at least some stuff for people to get acquainted with, whether unintentionally or not.
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