Don Bluth, Opinions

Evolution of a Franchise: ‘All Dogs Go to Heaven’

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It’s time for fascinating glimpse into the life of AJ Howell! (Please try to contain your excitement.) This past Tuesday, I was hanging out with a friend of mine, shootin’ the breeze and crusin’ the chicks. We were wandering through a store when something interesting caught my eye. I took a couple steps back, not certain I had actually seen what I thought I had.

This is what caught my interest so quickly:

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Up until that moment, I had no idea that All Dogs Go to Heaven had had an animated series. I was so intrigued that I bought the DVD sight unseen.

As I watched the episodes, I got to thinking about the All Dogs franchise as a whole. I hadn’t seen the first two films in a while, but it seemed to me that the TV episodes I was watching had an entirely different tone from the 1989 film that started it all. I started wondering about how time changed the franchise. All that pondering led to the article you’re reading now!

In this article, we’ll take each piece of the All Dogs Go to Heaven franchise one at at time, analyzing what makes them what they are. We’ll also see how they compare to what came before. Who knows? Maybe we’ll learn something from this.

All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989)

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THE PLOT: After a breakout from the dog pound, Charlie B. Barkin (Burt Reynolds) and Itchy Itchiford (Dom DeLuise) go the the casino that Charlie once part owned. Unfortunately, they catch Carface (Vic Tayback), Charlie’s former partner, in a bad mood. Charlie’s the last dog Carface wants to see; he doesn’t want cops sniffing around looking for Charlie, but, more importantly, he doesn’t want to split the betting cash he’s making off of Anne-Marie (Judith Barsi), an orphaned girl who can talk to animals. Carface comes up with an easy solution to his problem: kill Charlie off. He does so, but Charlie escapes from Heaven after he  rewinds the watch that measures his life. Charlie kidnaps Anne-Marie and makes a huge pile of cash with her. Charlie becomes touched by the little girl, however, and eventually decides to help her. Meanwhile, Carface and his stooge, Killer (Charles Nelson Reilly) try to re-kill Charlie.

THE ANALYSIS: All Dogs Go to Heaven began as a private eye story, featuring Charlie as a Bogart-esque private detective. It was meant to be only one part of an anthology film, so the story was quite small. Eventually (with the help of famed screenwriter Robert Towne), Bluth, David Weiss, and the rest of the story crew turned the detective story into a longer tale, transforming Charlie from a detective into a sleazy small-time crook.

The story crew did a great job expanding the story. The story that finally made it into the movie is rich and nuanced, but it’s not too big. It still feels smallish, intimate, and warm. There’s a lot of detail scattered throughout the film, and it feels like a story that rewards repeat viewings. In a way, All Dogs Go to Heaven feels more like a novel than a film, and I dig that! (All of Don Bluth’s ’80s work share these same qualities, and it makes them all special.)

The animation is stellar, standard for Bluth’s work. It also features a certain rough-around-the-edges quality that makes the film stand out. Don Bluth said several times that his main objective was to make movies reminiscent of classic Disney, for a fraction of the money. The crew’s skill comes together with the limited budget to produce a warm, handmade vibe. Said vibe makes the movie a pleasure to watch!

THE VERDICT: The film has an engrossing story, fascinating characters, and charming animation. Four out of five stars!

All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 (1996)

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THE PLOT: Charlie (Charlie Sheen) has returned to Heaven, but he’s bored. Things are too squeaky-clean and sweet for his personality. Even the new arrival of his old buddy, Itchy (Dom DeLuise again), doesn’t ease his restlessness. Charlie’s anger is intensified when he sees his old enemy, Carface (Ernest Borgnine), achieving high honors in Heaven. Little does he know, however, that Carface is planning to steal Gabriel’s fabled horn from Heaven and turn it over to a devilish cat (George Hearn). When Carface loses the horn in San Francisco, Annabelle (Bebe Neuwirth), Heaven’s administrator, sends Charlie and Itchy to Earth to retrieve the horn. However, Charlie and Itchy unwittingly make a deal with the devil cat, which complicates both their attempts to get the horn and their attempts to help David (Adam Wylie), a young runaway. Oh, yeah, and Charlie also falls in love with a lounge singer, Sasha (Sheena Easton).

THE ANALYSIS: The mantra behind Hollywood sequels seems to be “Do it BIGGER,” and All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 is a prime example. The devilish cat is a more intimidating villain than Carface, largely because he possesses supernatural powers that Carface didn’t. Charlie’s character proves resilient in the face of changing voice actors, retaining his smart-alecky personality. Itchy also comes through with his quirkiness, loyalty, and likability. The film also does a good job of capturing San Francisco; it drips with local color and a strong sense of setting.

The songs are also catchy and fun! To write the songs, studio executives turned to Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, a famous songwriting team dating back to the ’50s and ’60s. (They wrote this famous gem, for instance!) The resulting songs are different from what we’re used to hearing in animated films; the songs have pop roots, not Broadway ones. Still, the songs are fun to listen to and sing along with!

Unfortunately, All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 also takes a few hits. After Don Bluth left the franchise, the films were turned over to studio executives who didn’t possess the same passion for animation or story. As a result, those areas slide in quality. The animation is serviceable, but it has a slick, soulless quality. The warm, handmade vibe that marked the first film is gone.

The story could have been really strong, if not for one small issue: it ignores the first film ENTIRELY! Carface and Charlie have inexplicably become good chums in Heaven, even though Carface tried to deep-six Charlie several times. Anne-Marie isn’t mentioned once. Killer doesn’t show up AT ALL. Carface becomes a sniveling henchman to the devil cat, and the Carface of the first movie wouldn’t snivel to ANYONE. It’s kind of sad.

THE VERDICT: This is a tough one. In spite of its faults, I still like this movie quite a bit! My family actually owned All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 before we owned the first film,, so I’ve seen the sequel more often. This is a movie I have a lot of nostalgia for, so I can’t judge it objectively. That being said, I would give it three stars. Quality-wise, this film rates 2.5 stars. That half star for nostalgia helps, though!

All Dogs Go to Heaven: The Series (1996-1999)

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THE PLOT: After the events of All Dogs Go to Heaven 2, Charlie (Steven Weber) is returned to San Francisco by Annabelle (Bebe Neuwirth again!). Itchy (Dom DeLuise, yet again!) also returns with his buddy. Charlie and Itchy are given permanent guardian angel assignments by Annabelle, who appears at the beginning of each episode to give them a mission. Unfortunately, the missions never unfold as they’re supposed to, since Carface (Ernest Borgnine returns, too!) and Killer (one last return with Charles Nelson Riley!) are back on Earth, as well.

THE ANALYSIS: All Dogs Go to Heaven: The Series was part of the ’90s fad of producing a TV series based on every successful animated film released. As all of us know, while some were really good, some were quite bad. All Dogs Go to Heaven: The Series is one of the latter.

The series finishes what the sequel started, becoming even cheaper in the rush for a profit. The animation in the series is so cheap that it’s distracting. Secondary characters move jerkily, as if they’re robots with a defective control panel. The main characters move more fluidly, but they still have a little trouble – especially going out of shots.

The stories are nothing to write home about, but they’re solidly constructed and somewhat interesting. However, they’re not enough to compensate for the poor animation. It also doesn’t help that, once again, the writers disregard ALL the story from the earlier films. Itchy is on Earth again, even though he elected to stay in Heaven at the end of the second film. Carface is around, even though he was dragged to Hell at the end of the sequel. Sasha and Charlie aren’t an item, even though they were sucking face when we saw them last. It’s irritating and more than a little confusing!

THE VERDICT: This is AWFUL. It was a ripoff, even at the four dollars I spent on the DVD I bought. One and a half stars.

So How Does the Franchise Stack Up?

As we’ve discussed, the All Dogs Go to Heaven franchise went downhill fast, even more so than most franchises. This is what happens when a franchise loses its guiding light. Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy were the ones who made the first film what it is. Their passion for animation, story, and character helped fuel a similar drive in the crew. That motivation made for a truly special film. Unfortunately, once that passion went away, the ADGTH franchise turned into nothing more than a slick money machine. There’s nothing wrong with doing something for the money, but it should go hand-in-hand with quality and not at the expense of quality.

All in all, All Dogs Go to Heaven is a classic example of what happens when movies are made by committee, rather than by passionate filmmakers. Executives should take note!

What do you think of the All Dogs Go to Heaven franchise?

Edited by: Hannah Wilkes

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About AJ Howell

AJ's love of movies began when his mom took him to see The Lion King on a warm California day in 1994. He left the theater with his mind blown and with a strong desire to become a filmmaker. AJ's fascinated with films of all kinds, but animated films have always held a special place in his heart, particularly Disney animation, the work of Chuck Jones, and Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson's Peanuts specials. His favorite animated films include (but aren't limited to) Frozen, Beauty And The Beast, Surf's Up, The Bugs Bunny/RoadRunner Movie, and Toy Story 3. Along with films, AJ also loves pop and rock music, hiking, the beach, comic books, traveling, writing, acting, and baseball.