Day 1 of Don Bluth: Rock-a-Doodle

by tigermanifesto

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While finishing up the Ralph Bakshi Retrospective, I began to think forward about the next  series to launch on the blog. Series are excellent ways of organizing groups of posts around themes, help lubricate the writing process, and fill in gaps in my own cultural knowledge.

I decided that Don Bluth would be an excellent follow-up for a few reasons. They’re both animators from outside the Disney empire who produced commercially and critically successful films that were highly influential, albeit in different ways and from different vantage points. Not to mention that both men were born a year apart from one another and their directing careers overlap. But their peak periods of critical respect and commercial impact were in the 1970s for Bakshi and the 80s for Bluth. Though the reasons for this are largely contingent, since Bluth was unhappily working for Disney before walking out with a crew of animators in tow, there are also ways in which Bluth’s work “fits” the American 1980s and its film industry the way that Bakshi’s sensibilities both informed and squared with those of New Hollywood.

Now that I mention the 1980s, however, I have to confess that this series is not about them. We can usher them back into the garish pink closet they crawled out of, because this series is specifically looking at the seven features Bluth produced after 1989. Partly this is because there are seven of them and 1989 is both an arbitrary cutoff and justifies a catchy series title. Not entirely arbitrary, though. 1989 saw, among other world-historical events, the release of All Dogs Go to Heaven, which despite its mixed reputation is probably the purest embodiment of Bluth’s priorities as an animator and filmmaker. It also marked the end of his commercial success, as every film after that––excepting Anastasia––would be a financial failure. One could ask why the American animation renaissance in the 90s, which owes its existence to Bluth more than any single person, was merciless to one of its forefathers.

Though Bluth’s background is fairly well known and easily accessible through Google, I want to introduce a guiding theme for the series that will help us frame his career and hopefully understand his films better. This theme takes the form of a dichotomy, which is by no means absolute but which can help articulate Bluth’s relationship to the wider industry, especially his erstwhile employers at Disney. I’ll use Ralph Bakshi as the antithesis. Bakshi was a television animation director invested in the counterculture, a true outsider who made a hit essentially by accident. He pushed feature animation in radical new directions, appreciating classical animation but chafing under the stranglehold Disney had/s on the industry. He was a rebel, who rejected the status quo and worked as independently as possible to tell personal stories. Don Bluth had a notorious falling out with Disney, but it was more on the order of heresy than rebellion. 

Bluth is the staunchest classicist, more Martin Luther than Thomas Müntzer if you can follow my Reformation humour. His career was always founded on an imagined return to animation’s golden age, which he experienced while working as as assistant on Sleeping Beauty. Working with Disney in the 70s, he despaired and essentially packed up with a number of followers and tried to do Disney better than Disney. In the 80s, he arguably succeeded with the help of Steven Spielberg. In the 90s, though, when Disney was globally dominant and producing gigantic hits with budgets to match? One could ask whether Bluth’s ardent traditionalism, which makes his 90s films look far, far older than the contemporary Disney musicals, was both his greatest strength and an unbreakable limitation.

So we’ve covered Bakshi the rebel. Now we move on to Bluth the heretic, who left the One True Church but only to hasten a return to past glory. And our first film is the enigmatic Rock-a-Doodle, a surreal fable that’s more concentrated idiosyncrasy than film.

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I’m 90% sure there’s a comma splice in the tagline.

Released in 1992, Rock-a-Doodle is the story of a rooster named Chanticleer (Glen Campbell) who brings up the sun when he crows. Pushed out of his cozy farm life thanks to an evil Grand Duke of Owls (Christopher Plummer), he heads to the city to become a rock-and-roll star. Because he never crows, the sun never rises and a deluge of rain begins to overwhelm the world. A small child named Edmond (Toby Scott Granger), shown in live action at the beginning in bookends à la Wizard of Oz, tries to summon Chanticleer  but is transformed into a cat by the Grand Duke and joins the party trying to get Chanticleer back to the farm so he can summon the sun back and save the world from devastation.

1. Family

Actually, check that last part, it’s more about saving Edmond’s home and family than “the world.” The aforementioned live action segments play like a midcentury Disney live action film, delightfully ham handed despite being plagued by Granger’s “naturalistic” child acting. As is typical of Bluth films, family and particularly the nuclear family are associated with the sacred and the mystical. The Great Valley in The Land Before Time was a faraway and alien place, yes, but it was also fundamentally home because that’s where the young dinosaurs’ friends are. Likewise, the final victory of Chanticleer is significant primarily because the sunrise protects the family and delivers the sleeping Edmond back there. Contrariwise, our villains are dandyish or depraved, with Christopher Plummer’s Grand Duke living with a small parliament of owls who sing harmony together to organ music. The Duke even has a nephew, but of course no son because effeminate, gay-coded villains are cast as the dark shadow of the family, in this case literally.

Our central character Edmond’s coming of age is in turn directly tied to this, since the impetus for his becoming-a-man is the need to protect his family, which he is unable to do at the beginning. He’s stuck inside with his mother, still identified with the feminine half of the family. By the end, he’s become a man––at least metaphorically.

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2. Country Mouse and City Mouse

Rock-a-Doodle’s central problem is separation from family/being without light. Notably, the city is a place ruled by artificial light, which can whirl on merrily despite the lack of sunlight. Phone relationship reign, whether it be between Chanticleer and his media magnate agent Pinky or between the rocking rooster and his legions of adoring fans. Since Rock-a-Doodle is something of a showbiz movie, Pinky stands in for the rotting corporate heart of the biz, a pudgy fox (employing a chicken?) who drives a phallic car and flies a phallic helicopter (and they all live together in a phallic little house) coloured 80s pink. Life in the city is simply not authentic in Rock-a-Doodle’s mind, which prefers the green idyll of the yeoman farm. Jeffersonian, to say the least.

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The City bathed in trademarked Bluth Devil Light

3. Puritan and Pervert

If it’s not obvious by this point, I will point out that Bluth’s films are politically conservative, Rock-a-Doodle being no exception. On top of this, they are sentimental and preoccupied with theological mysticism. More on that later. But in depictions of the female animals, the animators show off their pervy side as well. As someone who has seen and loves Fritz the Cat, I have a great deal of experience with sexualized animals. And yet the first thought I had when I saw this––

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-–was how I was much more vexed by Bluth’s sexualization of the characters than Bakshi’s. I criticized Bakshi for his constant mishandling of his women characters, but for Bluth the problem is related but manifests in a different way. Where Bakshi’s love of transgression often overcame his critical faculties, more often with women than with racial issues, Bluth and his team fabricate these vaguely terrifying mammalian chickens because it’s just how you feminize anthropomorphic animals. Goldie, a chorus girl pheasant who works under Pinky and is one of two female characters worth discussing, looks like this:

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She’s the one on the right.

She was modelled after Jessica Rabbit, and though her stick-waisted appearance here is faintly ridiculous, she was originally even more exaggerated. After the critical coolness on All Dogs, Bluth and company sought the advice of test audiences for this film, and they had to edit her looks––among other parts of the movie––to avoid a PG rating. One of Goldie’s roles in the plot is to agree to keep Chanticleer from getting lonely so he won’t try to fly the coop, so to speak. Of course, she eventually falls in Disney love with him and presumably has their relationship consecrated by a minister of the word, thus returning the world to balance. Before this, however, her characterization is equal parts seductress and wilting flower, femme fatale and rescue victim. The epitome of the Disney princess à la Sleeping Beauty but with an attraction that is more explicitly sexualized. When we talk about Thumbelina tomorrow, we’ll see a more sanitized version of this same archetype.

My point is that the film combines a strict adherence to hetero nuclear family values while also indulging in the pleasure of representing sexualized figures, presumably for the benefit of both artist and viewer. It’s not hypocrisy, exactly, but it’s an important marker of the kind of tensions that exist in Bluth’s work.

4. The Voice

One reason why I find Rock-a-Doodle so doggedly enjoyable despite its failures and miscalculations is because it does have a strong central motif that it develops well. Most of the central characters are defined by their voice in some way. Goldie is a singer, Chanticleer has the magic crow and sings rock-and-roll, there is a technically skilled mouse with a lisp, and Edmond has a grating, annoying voice. Our villain The Grand Duke is also a singer and has a magical breath that can shape shift people. It’s the boy calling for Chanticleer that incites the plot, and it’s everyone cheering for Chanticleer to use his voice to save the world/the family that wins the day. Edmond is choked at the end and appears dead because he’s silent. I appreciated this as an anchor in a film that is otherwise often poorly tethered and rushed.

Finale: The Voice of God

When Edmond protests to his mother near the beginning of the film that he wants to help beat back the flood, his mother tells him to pray for the sun. Though it might seem odd that the figure to whom he prays for divine intervention is a magic rooster, it firmly establishes this as a Christian parable about the power of prayer. It’s “When You Wish Upon a Star” filtered through Mormonism. While this makes Rock-a-Doodle more distinctive in its messaging than the typical sanitized Disney movie, it will also be more polarizing.

Unfortunately, character designs were not the only things edited because of preview screenings. Scene-destroying narration by Phil Harris (who plays a dog in the movie as well) was slathered on to help hand-hold audiences through the film, often explaining what is already apparent in front of us. Not only this, but the narration overrides the music at key points, including the introductory song (!). Not only is it unnecessary and condescending, but it completely ruins the drama in a few scenes, effectively sabotaging the movie it’s explaining to us.

No version without narration like the various “final” cuts of Blade Runner exist, but if it did that would be the version to get. As it is, I would say that Rock-a-Doodle is a shambolic movie that succeeds more through its oddity than its core story. That, and a wonderful performance by Christopher Plummer bring this film far above some of the disastrous material we’ll encounter soon…soon enough.

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