When Don Bluth left Disney in the late 1970s, he set out to make a different kind of animated film, and his The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail and The Land Before Time certainly strike a different tone than their Disney contemporaries. Perhaps the gap is most apparent in 1989’s All Dogs Go to Heaven, an almost relentlessly dark film that’s tested the mettle of many a youngster. Death isn’t shied away from much here, with plenty of menacing imagery to back it up.
And yet, for all of its maverick qualities, the film tends to fail in many of the same areas that lackluster animated films almost always do — uninspired celebrity voice casting and lame songs to fill in the narrative dead spots being the chief offenders. Some of Bluth’s fantastical animation sequences still shine, but a strong nostalgia kick is probably necessary to make the film a worthwhile watch.
Burt Reynolds voices German Shepherd Charlie B. Barkin, a con artist who gets on the bad side of his former partner Carface (Vic Tayback). The cigar-chomping bulldog carries out a hit on Charlie, but after a brief trip to heaven — a destination where all dogs end up, he learns — he escapes the otherworldly clutches and returns to Earth, intent on avenging his own death.
He meets up with dachshund pal Itchy (Dom DeLusie), and together the two find a one-way street to riches in the form of Anne-Marie (Judith Barsi), an orphan girl whom Carface has kidnapped. The girl can talk to all animals, giving the dogs the inside track to know which horse (or frog or rat) is going to win the race, so they can place bets accordingly. (Apparently all racing animals fix each race before it takes place.) The scheme makes Charlie and Itchy rich, but Charlie has to decide what’s more important to him — money or the welfare of the adoring little girl.