New Orleans, 1939: fast-talking canine con artist Charlie B. Barkin (voiced by Burt Reynolds) - get it? - and his loyal pal Itchy Itchford (Dom DeLuise) bust out of the dog pound and return to their casino riverboat on the bayou. Yes, in this world a dog can run a casino. Just go with it. However, Charlie's unscrupulous business partner Carface Caruthers (Vic Tayback) has no interest in sharing their profits. He arranges it so an intoxicated Charlie ends up in a car shoved downhill to his death. Whereupon Charlie finds himself in heaven where a Whippet Angel (Melba Moore) informs him all dogs go. Since dogs are inherently good and loyal (er, okay, tell that to Carface). Ever the rascal, Charlie is not ready to settle into the afterlife just yet. Instead he works his charms on the angel and swipes a magic gold pocket watch embodying his canine life-force. Practically immortal, so long as he has the watch, Charlie rejoins Itchy on Earth. Together they swipe Carface's secret get-rich-quick scheme. Which happens to be Anne-Marie (Judith Barsi), a little orphan girl magically able to talk to animals. Powers that help Charlie win big at the races putting him back on top. Yet even as Carface plots his revenge, taking care of Anne-Marie helps the hitherto devious dog learn to love.
While collaborating with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas helped Don Bluth score two hits with An American Tail (1986) and The Land Before Time (1988) respectively the veteran animator was displeased with the degree of creative control each exerted on the finished films. So, just as he left Disney behind in the Seventies, Bluth struck out on his own, signed a new deal with the UK-based Goldcrest Films and relocated his animation studio to Ireland. As a result of this newly unfettered creativity Bluth's output took a turn for the eccentric. Indeed belying his saccharine reputation, Don Bluth made some of the strangest (or if we're being more generous: imaginative) children's cartoons of the period. He later went over the edge with Rock-a-Doodle (1991), a film that does have a small fan base (myself included) but struck a surer albeit still quite bonkers blend of off-kilter imagination and beguiling storytelling with All Dogs Go to Heaven.
More successful on home video than its initial theatrical release the film sired an All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 (1996), a forty episode television series and a Christmas themed TV special An All Dogs Christmas Carol (1998). None of which sadly featured the vocal stylings of Burt Reynolds. Which is a shame given Bluth tailored the role of Charlie specifically for Burt right from the film's inception back several years prior as a follow-up to his breakthrough The Secret of NIMH (1982). He also preserved the dynamic Burt established with frequent sparring partner Dom DeLuise (by then also a Don Bluth regular) by allowing the actors to record lines together so they could riff off each other. Bluth's animators do an expert job capturing Burt's trademark roguish charm in canine form. Indeed Charlie might be one of his better post-heyday roles reflecting the persona established in all of his iconic good ol' boy characters from the Seventies.
Which is just as well since Charlie is also surprisingly mercenary, at times even downright amoral for a cartoon dog in a children's movie. He happily exploits vulnerable innocent Anne-Marie and at one point even casually calls her "a brat." However, as off-putting as all this might sound Charlie's acerbic persona cuts through an otherwise treacly fable. He comes across an intriguing malcontent, thriving on danger and risk, who nonetheless softens under the benign influence of Anne-Marie (who resembles a miniature Snow White) in a manner both thematically satisfying and genuinely sweet. Part inspired by Damon Runyan stories, All Dogs Go to Heaven sets out to evoke the specific tone of vintage Hollywood fantasies like Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), Little Miss Marker (1934/1965/1980) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946) with their mix of Depression-era desperation and supernatural whimsy. Eccentricities abound throughout a convoluted plot that suffers from problems that routinely plague Don Bluth films: scenes that somehow both drag on too long yet speed by too quickly for their wild ideas to gel together. At one point a character inexplicably gets their paws on a laser gun (?!) Later the film indulges in an extended riff on King Kong (1933). A tribe of mice (?!) offer up a captive Charlie and Anne-Marie as a sacrifice to King Gator (Ken Page) an opera-loving alligator and voodoo witch-doctor (?!) that serenades the confused canine with a song about making music together. Whilst dancing inside a giant clam shell.
With the exception of the likable calypso-themed "What's Mine is Yours", the songs are among the movie's weaker aspects. Yet while neither Burt nor Dom can carry a tune their enthusiasm and good humour just about redeems the musical numbers. Elsewhere the animators conjure a richly detailed canine parallel universe of hard-boiled thugs and sultry lounge singers. The lush, colourful visuals and intricately animated set-pieces are routinely stunning. Including an apocalyptic nightmare sequence wherein Charlie envisions himself transported to hell where demons gnaw at his flesh. A scene deemed too intense for young children and drastically trimmed from the release print. Sadly, Bluth's efforts to restore the scene for re-release were undone when thieves stole the last uncut print from his storage room. Freaky stuff and structural flaws aside, the charming dynamic between Burt and the tragically ill-fated Judith Barsi (if you are looking to get depressed, Google her) carries the wayward plot and ensures the film remains a firm family favourite. Some fans even go so far as to posit All Dogs Go to Heaven as a Christ allegory. Especially given as it climaxes with Charlie 'crucified' on an anchor prior to his climactic 'resurrection.' Of course Jesus did not have a giant opera-loving alligator to call on for backup. Seriously, this kid's film is weird. In a good way.
Bluth is also famous for Dragon's Lair, one of the of the first Laser Disc games and a marvellous cartoon in its own right. He followed that up with Space Ace... both brilliantly animated, even if the gameplay was excruciatingly frustrating! Netflix have reportedly commissioned a Dirk the Daring film!
By the nineties, Bluth just wasn't competing with Disney anymore, despite his talents, and films like Thumbelina and The Pebble and the Penguin were being largely ignored. Anastasia was a minor success, but Titan A.E., touted as a summer blockbuster, was a major flop and Bluth has not directed anything since.