If there was ever a banner day in the history of children’s film (at least for my generation), it was November 17, 1989: The day on which both All Dogs Go to Heaven and The Little Mermaid opened on the big screen. It might tell you something that though I saw The Little Mermaid TEN TIMES in the theater, I don’t remember seeing Dogs in the theater once. According to the interwebs, Dogs did terribly in the theaters, particularly compared with other Don Bluth animated movies such as An American Tail, and this is not surprising, given that Dogs opened on the same weekend as The Little Mermaid. But “You Can’t Keep A Good Dog Down,” as the song goes: Dogs turned into a huge VHS hit, one of the biggest VHS releases ever. And it is via the chunky, black plastic VHS tape that Dogs became a part of my childhood canon.
My brother and I watched this movie a lot. And I mean A LOT. Recently, we sat down to watch the movie together again (we are so ten-year-olds in thirty-something clothing…well, he’s twenty-nine), and I swear, it was as if we were back in our old family room with the weird light gray wood paneling and tiffany lamp in the corner, bouncing on the dark brown couch with an open box of cereal poised on the big wooden trunk we used for a coffee table. I not only remembered whole scenes from this film (the loose retelling of Robin Hood, the horse race, the scary hell dream, my favorite song, “Soon You’ll Come Home”), but individual lines and their exact delivery, “Itchy, button it up.”
What’s interesting is that the things that jump out at me now as a mom I don’t think even registered for me as a kid. In the opening scene of Dogs, a gangster German shepherd named Charlie B. Barkin, voiced by Burt Reynolds, is busted out of “jail” (the dog pound) by his best friend Ichiford “Itchy” Dachsund, where he’d been sent after being set up by his partner, Carface Carruthers, a murderous bulldog with whom Charlie owned a rigged casino. Charlie returns to the casino, sings a rousing number with a bunch of chain-smoking, beer-swilling hounds, and then is murdered by Carface and his henchman, a scrawny, bespectacled mutt named Killer. Charlie goes to heaven, not because of his good deeds, but because of some cosmic loophole by which all dogs go to heaven; however, Charlie steals his “watch” and rewinds it so that he can go back to earth and seek revenge on Carface, even though this means he can never go back to heaven. So in the first half-hour, this film brings up those timeless staples of childhood fairytales: smoking, drinking, gambling, murder, back-stabbing, and revenge.
Children’s movie. Obviously.
What’s astounding to me is that my blindness to the complete inappropriateness of these topics for a G-rated children’s movie is apparently not related to the fact that I was twelve at the time. Roger Ebert’s review of the film talks about the fantastic depth of color achieved in the cell animation and the uniqueness of Bluth’s characterizations. He mentions that it is the story of a “canine low-life in New Orleans,” but fails to tell of the gambling, the smoking, the guns, the liquor…the late eighties/early nineties were really a different age. (Compare, for example, the beer-filled tavern scene for “Gaston” in Beauty and the Beast with the alcohol-free tavern scene for “I’ve Got a Dream” in Tangled.) I think parents would absolutely blow a gasket if such a film were marketed to their children today—maybe not over the guns, but the smoking? Not in my Goodnight Moon, thank you very much!
But not only is the movie chock full of adult content, the story follows adult characters. Compare Dogs with Bluth’s other films: Fievel is a young mouse searching for his family in turn-of-the-century New York, the dinosaurs in The Land Before Time are all kids, even Mrs. Brisby, though a mom, is decidedly an innocent. Charlie is a middle-aged dog with a past (who’s the father of that litter of puppies Flo the Collie (voiced by Reynolds’ then-wife Lonnie Anderson) is caring for?). He seeks revenge on his murderer by bamboozling a little orphan girl into helping him rake in the cash at the track. If the characters in this story were humans, not dogs, would there be any doubt that this was not a children’s movie?
Finally, Charlie’s story is one of redemption. In the end, he is redeemed for his sins by the love he develops for the girl. Redemption seems like an odd choice to peddle to children, as they are supposedly innocents who have yet to commit sins and are certainly (hopefully?) not as corrupt as Charlie himself. Charlie’s is a story for viewers who have lived long enough to understand the dog’s choices, not for viewers who are just learning to grasp the basic concept of consequences.
So how did this children’s-movie-that-is-not-for-children implant itself so firmly in my child-psyche? There are the easy answers: it’s about dogs; it has totally weird and awesome animation; it’s a musical; it has a happy ending. But these reasons don’t address the problem of the story as a whole.
I think that the real nugget to chew on is that redemption is an appropriate story for kids. On the one hand, Charlie is a parental figure and his redemption is one of going from a bad, exploitative parent to a caring, selfless parent. Such a story might appeal to a child first if they have bad parents whom they wish would change into good parents the way Charlie does, but also if they just have regular parents who sometimes make mistakes and then try to do better.
But on the other hand, redemption is a story that appeals to the child herself. It is important for a child to know that even if you do bad things, you can redeem yourself by trying to do better. The kids watching Dogs might not have plotted the murder of their business partner, but surely they have thought of stuffing their younger siblings into the trash compactor (what older sibling hasn’t?;). A movie which shows a kid that even if she has forced her younger brother to don a tutu for her amusement, she can perhaps make up for her crime by being a little nicer to the scrawny dude and giving him the bigger helping of ice cream or picking up his chores for a few days.
So much of All Dogs Go To Heaven seems misdirected at its intended audience, I do not believe that, were it released today, it would be marketed to children. And that would be a shame. Because for all the drinking, smoking, murder, and mayhem that it portrays, Dogs is ultimately a story of discovering that you can care even when you didn’t think you could, that you can be generous of yourself even if you’ve been selfish in the past. It is a story about the possibility of forgiveness and grace through striving to be a better person (dog). And these are important stories to tell children. Even more important, I dare say, than Ariel’s story of learning you can disobey your dad and date that hunky guy from the other side of town, and, even if it means he has to sacrifice himself and his kingdom, Daddy will still love his little girl.