Suspended Animation #334
Rock-A-Doodle (1991) was a confused animated feature produced by Sullivan Bluth Studios and Goldcrest Films.
Disney had spent some time unsuccessfully trying to develop an animated feature based on the classic Chanticleer tale of the rooster who believed his morning crowing brought up the sun each day but eventually abandoned the project because of story problems.
As early as 1982 on a foreign publicity tour for The Secret of NIMH, Bluth announced that the story of Chanticleer would be one of his upcoming films.
The Bluth version takes place in 1959 with the rooster meant to reference Elvis Presley. Glen Campbell who had been a friend of Elvis and had done an Elvis impersonation in his concerts before Elvis died voiced the rooster.
Don Bluth was fascinated with Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and wanted to emulate it with Rock A Doodle by having a live action-animation hybrid. There was a lot of live action footage shot for the film to serve as a live action bracket to the animation. It was originally filmed in black-and-white and then once it went to animation it would be in full color in the manner of the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz.
The film opened on Edmond’s farm with his mother (played by an Irish actress but later dubbed by Dee Wallace Stone) reading her son the story of Chanticleer. There was no narration by Phil Harris. Bluth himself did the direction.
Bluth and Gary Goldman wanted to have their own version of a Jessica Rabbit character. That was the reason for the Goldie the Pheasant character. Originally she was more endowed with larger breasts, cleavage and a skimpy dress with lots of glitter. This version can be seen in the early trailer for the film on the All Dogs Go To Heaven (1989) video tape.
The studio test-screened the film shortly before that video was released. They found that mothers were offended by Goldie’s outrageous proportions. Goldcrest didn’t want the film to be rated PG since it would limit a potential audience. Bluth’s America studio covered up those exaggerated proportions with feathers using cel overlays.
In the “Kiss and Coo” scene, animator Bob Miller redrew the King’s wine glass into a transparent cup and the wine bottle to be King soda. Goldcrest felt that having the rooster be an alcoholic was not a good idea.
The film originally included darker elements, a famous one being a deleted sequence from the kitchen scene. In this sequence the Duke bakes a live baby skunk in a pie and then eats it. Oddly enough, according to Gary Goldman, the reason this was cut wasn’t because of the content but because Bluth’s studio received a complaint from Goldcrest’s marketing representative that most cases of child abuse happen in the kitchen, and involve baking instruments.
Test screenings showed that audiences were confused by the story so a basset dog narrator (voiced by Phil Harris in his last performance before his retirement) was added. Co-director Gary Goldman recalled in August 2002 that “Phil Harris was great. It wasn’t hard to sign him up. He had done such a good job on Disney’s Jungle Book (1967) we just thought he was a great choice for the dog, Patou, in Rock-A-Doodle. He loved to work and had a good time doing this voice-over. He was well into his 70’s when he did the role.”
A notice in the June 1990 issue of the studio newsletter stated the cuts were “to create appeal to the broadest spectrum of audience.”
The article went on to state “The repairs involve some rerecording and an additional contribution by Phil Harris, the voice of Patou. We have restructured the continuity which allows the audience to stay focused on Edmund and the adventure he’s undertaking. Chanticleer’s role as ‘The King’ works very well now without confusing the audience as to who is the hero (adults seem to be attracted to Chanticleer and children to Edmund). Small snippets were made here and there which have polished the continuity and everyone feels the film has been greatly enhanced.”
The Samuel Goldwyn Company teamed up with Macy’s in 1991 to produce a Rock-a-Doodle float to promote the release of the film the following April. The float featured an old, rickety treehouse, recycled from a Cabbage Patch Kids float that had previously appeared in the parade, and was adorned with many of the film’s characters, dancing and waving as they head down the Parade route. The float made its only appearance in Thanksgiving 1991 and was not seen in the following years.
In 1992, Bluth told reporters: “I first found the story of Chanticleer when I was reading the works of 19th Century playwright Edmond Rostand who also wrote Cyrano de Bergerac. Here was a story about a man who had lost faith in himself and starts to believe his whole life is a sham. I don’t cry easily but I was moved.
“Then I started thinking about Man of La Mancha, a broken down old man who sees what he wants to see so he becomes a great knight and windmills become giants.
“All of this was more complicated than we could give to an audience of four year olds so we twisted it around and tried to tell it to children: if you lose your self confidence, you can’t do a thing. But if you have it, you can do anything. And we told it in a silly cartoon kind of way.
“Singer Glen Campbell is the voice of the rooster and most people don’t know he was a session guitarist on some Elvis records. He went in and did the initial thrust of the character. Then we animated a little bit of it and we said, “Wait a minute, that’s turning out differently than we thought” so we called him back.
“Originally he wasn’t going to mimic Elvis. In fact, we were very shy about asking him to do that. But once he heard the music he started laughing and we didn’t know how he was going to take this. But he stepped to the microphone. He suddenly did Elvis. I think he did it just because it was a hoot for him.
“And then he said, “The Jordanaires (Presley’s sometime backup group) are in town. Let’s bring ‘em in and have them sing backup. So we did.”
In 2002, Bluth added, “The film did not turn out as we planned. Our first problem occurred at the start of the production of the live-action bookend elements, where the story gets set up and resolved. Victor French was hired to direct the live action. Just after he arrived to start the shoot, he discovered that he had pancreatic cancer. Eight weeks later, he was gone. What a disaster for him and for our film.
“[But] the next disaster was that Goldcrest became concerned about one of our funniest sequences in the film. It was the sequence where Christopher Plummer’s character, the Grand Duke (the large Great Horned Owl), was in his kitchen, making a skunk pie.
“The skunk was a baby skunk, with the voice of an eight-year old actor. Goldcrest made us cut most of this sequence out even though the baby skunk escapes. This sequence was one of the favorite sequences of the children of the staff. This was a great disappointment as it got some of the biggest laughs in the film. We really felt that the film was being gutted.”