A Suspended Animation Special
When All Dogs Go to Heaven premiered November 17th, 1989 (the same day as Disney’s The Little Mermaid), it was the first animated feature made with Don Bluth in sole control without input from Amblin since The Secret of NIMH over seven years earlier.
The title came from a book read to Bluth’s fourth-grade class, and he resisted suggestions to change it even though it was occasionally called Charlie, the Heavenly Dog, and started production as “Charlie’s Friends”.
“I didn’t remember anything about the book, but I never forgot the title,” recalled Bluth. “I have had several dogs in my life and as each one has passed on, I wondered, ‘Would animals go to Heaven too?’ If I’m going to Heaven and they want me happy there, then my dog Skipper has to be there with me. Many people suggested changing the title but when I would mention the title to people, they would grin so I kept it.”
The film recounts the adventure in 1939 New Orleans of Charlie B. Barkin (voiced by Burt Reynolds) a German Shepherd murdered by his former friend Carface and returns from Heaven to reunite with his best friend Itchy Itchiford (voiced by Dom DeLuise) to take revenge but ends up befriending a young orphan girl who can talk to animals named Anne-Marie (voiced by Judith Barsi). Of course, in the process Charlie learns some important lessons.
Reynolds and DeLuise had previously appeared together in five live-action films. Unusually, the two performers recorded their lines together rather than separately with Bluth admitting that “their ad-libs were often better than the original script”.
John Pomeroy recalled, “Normally we record the voices separately, then inter-cut them to make up the tempo and timing that’s needed. With Reynolds and DeLuise together, we let them record the way they wanted to. They’ve worked together so often and have such a great rapport we could take what they recorded together and just cut it into the film.”
“Burt had already agreed to do a film with us,” said Bluth. Reynolds made one stipulation, though, that his name not be used to promote the film. “Knowing that he’d be featured in this made it so much easier to create a strong central character. Burt has a way of cocking his head and raising his eyebrows at half-mast, just an incredible way of using his face, so that aspect of the real Burt went straight into Charlie the dog.”
Co-director Gary Goldman recalled it took sometime to decide where to set the film: “Eventually, we opted for New Orleans as a completely different setting than anything we’d ever used before, with overtones of Mardi Gras, jazz music, the Mississippi and a feeling of worldliness that contrasted nicely with the film’s spiritual theme. Along with co-director Dan Kuenster, I made a special trip there and we took more than 3,000 photos for research purposes.”
Once the preliminary work was done, the studio had devised a story based on elements from such films as It’s A Wonderful Life, Little Miss Marker and Heaven Can Wait. David Weiss was brought in to put all these elements into the final screenplay.
For the film, Bluth designed the first major human character for one his features, Anne-Marie, the orphan girl.
After testing nearly a score of youngsters to perform the live action reference, the studio picked a six-year old Irish girl. In the course of six or seven months, she would come into the studio two or three times a week and would be filmed doing in live action what Anne-Marie was to do in animation.
John Pomeroy and his new wife were filmed as reference for the married couple in the film.
Don cast Judith Barsi, Ducky from Land Before Time as the voice of Anne- Marie. Tragedy struck in July of 1988 when she was allegedly killed by her father in what newspapers referred to as an “Apparent Murder-Suicide.” The studio was shocked by the events, especially Bluth who reportedly left for the day upon hearing the news. She had previously completed her voice recording.
Tony winner Charles Strouse was brought on the project to write four songs. His previous work included composing the music for such hits as Bye, Bye Birdie and Annie.
Bluth insisted, “No song could be just stuck in without a purpose. Every one had to advance the plot or enlighten the audience in some way.”
Bluth cited Let’s Make Music Together, which is sung in the film by King Gator, “We were trying to figure out how to make this big, mean, ugly alligator entertaining when it struck us to do a take-off on the old Esther Williams movies. And so our ugly ‘gator transformed into this lunatic, emerald green prima donna (complete with flowered bathing cap), who pirouettes, dives into flower covered pools of water and just about steals the show — all the while singing this terrific song.”
As the film neared completion, test screenings indicated some of the scenes “too intense” for the young audience. The MPAA even gave the film a “PG” rating. Several scenes were cut or trimmed. The re- submitted feature received a “G.”
“We want adults to feel comfortable letting their children see this,” Pomeroy stated, “but we don’t want to just totally neuter the picture and take all the thrill out of it. So it was a balancing act. We wanted the G rating, and yet we still wanted to tell the story as we intended it… going to heaven involves death.”
The majority of cuts involved two scenes. The first was the scene where Charlie is killed by the car that graphically showed the car hitting the dog and Charlie’s body flying off the pier and into the river. The other reduction came in the nightmare where Charlie envisions Hell. Originally the giant demon spoke to Charlie, attempting to reach out for him in a longer, more threatening scene.
Another minor change was changing the tommy gun that Carface used against Charlie and Anne-Marie into a fantasy sounding “atomic gun”.
Don Bluth owned a private 35-mm print of the movie with the cut-out scenes and planned to convince Goldcrest Films on releasing a director’s cut of the film after returning from Ireland in the mid-1990s, but the print was eventually stolen from Bluth’s locked storage room.
The film met with a barrage of negative reviews focusing on the story, the songs and the voice work although a few critics did like it. Final box office for the film topped $29 million, a far cry from The Little Mermaid’s nearly $90 million. When it was released on video in 1990, it became a top selling title and received some kinder reviews.