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Not quite a misfire but not half as good as it should have been
on 16 June 2010
Breaking out of the City Pound, roguish German Shepherd Charlie B. Barkin finds himself double-crossed by his shady partner Carface Malone and knocking at the Pearly Gates without a good deed to his name. Demanding a second chance, he steals his heavenly watch and returns to earth where he soon discovers the secret of Carface's gambling success - a little girl who can talk to animals and get race results direct from the horse's mouth! Smelling a fast buck, Charlie 'rescues' her only to find his hitherto unsuspected good nature getting the better of him, with a series of fiendish schemes, close scrapes and unexpected adventures leading him to a life and death decision...
"When you have plot, good characters and actors, and fine animators, all these things are the makings of real magic," claimed Don Bluth at the time of the film's release. Well, not quite. As an animator, with his fluid, classic style and shimmering use of light at a time when Disney animation was stuck firmly in the doldrums, Don Bluth had no peers, but, the honorable exception of The Secret of NIMH aside, as a storyteller he was still back in the stone age. All Dogs has a premise - a very promising, if predictable one - but the plotting is all over the place. Veering off in all directions, seemingly for no better reason than self-indulgence, without a strongly developed storyline his undoubted visual talent quickly loses impact and cohesion.
Sequences like an ill-judged laser gun shoot-out are abrupt and fragmented and completely out of keeping with the mood of the piece, as if straying in from another, lesser film. The musical numbers are for the most part irrelevant, neither advancing the plot or enlightening the audience, and just as chaotic, not only because of Burt Reynolds and Dom De Luise's lack of vocal range (they seem to give up half-way). They seem badly mistimed and suffer from Bluth's occasional tendency to swamp the borders of the frame with gaudy colour. Crucial scenes, such as Charley's escape from Heaven, are similarly rushed out of much of their significance or value. Bluth really needs to hold back and take his time, but seems to lack the confidence to do so.
The character design is the film's only real unqualified triumph. Charlie is probably the best cartoon canine since Tramp, while Ann-Marie is one of the few successfully animated human characters in memory; and King Gator, the Esther Williams fixated ruler of the sewers who supplies the film with its most successful musical number ('Let's Make Music Together') is an absurd enough scene-stealer to make you overlook the fact that there's actually no good reason for him to be in the film at all.
With the exception of much of An American Tail, Bluth's animation was far superior to the work Disney were doing at the time. Yet with their understanding of classic narrative structure, even the more disappointing Disney animated features of the day worked much more effectively. Here is direction is often adventurous and anarchic - note how his chase scenes move from right-to-left, rather than the standard left-to-right - but lacks the discipline that the magical Secret of NIMH showed him capable of.
Yet despite everything, All Dogs is often fun, and the finale is genuinely touching. If you can overlook what this should have been and accept what it is - beautifully animated, warm-hearted family entertainment with a story that's all over the place - you won't be too disappointed.