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What can honestly be said about Don Bluth, a former animator for Disney as well as the creator of a few animated films himself? During the 1980’s after his departure from Disney’s animation studio, Bluth went on to make movies such as An American Tale, The Land Before Time, and what many consider to be his masterpiece, The Secret of NIMH, and actually prospered during a time whereas Disney was in both a financial and creative slump. His movies differed greatly from the usual standard Disney, mainly because he didn’t stick to copying from the Disney Formula when he first started out. Compared to a typical Disney plot where the main character had light-hearted fun,then a conflict came, but the character resolves it and lives happily ever after, Bluth’s plot and story-lines were a lot more mature-themed as well as having a very dark and threatening atmosphere or environment threatening the protagonist. Despite the protagonist reaching a happy ending at the end of the films, they arguably go through a great deal of pain and sacrifice, but become a smarter person as well.

However, during the early 90’s, Disney was back in full swing of making animated box office hits during what many people call the “Disney Renaissance”, and Bluth fell on hard times when it came to finances, movie development, and quality. This became apparent when his newest animated movie at the time, Rock-A-Doodle, was released in theaters on April 3 1992, as it signaled that not only was Bluth dethroned from his position in the 1980’s, but also that he would continue this downward spiral throughout the 90’s (despite having good success with the 1997 release of Anastasia, only to plummet back down in 2000 with the commercial failure of the now cult hit, Titan A.E.).

The whole idea behind Rock-A-Doodle and its origins dates back to when Bluth was still working at Disney’s animation studio. Originally, the idea was to create an animated movie that would crossover the fables of Chanticleer the Rooster and Reynard the Fox. However, Walt Disney personally rejected the idea, and the concept was put into limbo. According to Wikipedia, in the late 1980’s, Bluth proposed the the idea of the animated Chanticleer movie, but wanted make the movie a live action/ animation hybrid in an attempt to capitalize on the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Sadly, Rock-A-Doodle was not well-recieved by either critics or audiences, making only roughly $11.6 million dollars and leading to the bankruptcy of Sullivan Bluth Studios.

To a 6 year old, however, Rock-A-Doodle was one of those animated movies that your mother picked up at Blockbuster to keep you entertained during a snow day; you’d watch it maybe 3 or 4 times during the rental period, but once it was returned, you promptly forgot about it. However, thanks to the Internet I managed to find a complete upload of the whole movie. The purpose of this was to revisit my childhood, remove the “Nostalgia Goggles” (as I personally thought this movie was wonderful as a child), and watch Rock-A-Doodle with the perspective of not only a fan of animated movies, but a fan of Don Bluths’ movies.

Well, I suppose I should just give a brief overview of the plot first. It begins with Chanticleer crowing/ singing a song to make the sun rise. All of the animals adore and look up to Chanticleer because they believe that his crowing brings the sun up, just like in the fable. However, after getting attacked by another rooster sent by the evil Grand Duke of Owls, Chanticleer, despite winning, forgets to crow but the sun rises anyway. The animals discover the Chanticleer is a fake and drive him out of the farm, causing a continuous rainstorm and the Grand Duke to reign terror over the farm. However, it turns out that this is simply just a story being told by a mother to our main character of the story, Edmond, whose family is attempting to hold down a huge flood from destroying their farm. As his family struggle against the flood, Edmond calls out for Chanticleer’s help, but is instead visited by the Grand Duke, who explains about his evil plan and turns Edmond into a cartoon kitten with his magical breath. Luckily, Edmond is saved by Patou the dog and all the other farm animals. It turns out that Chanticleer’s crowing did bring the sun up, so they now have to find him to stop the rain. Edmond teams up with Patou, a magpie named Snipes, and a mouse named Peepers, and they travel to The City to find Chanticleer while being pursued by the Grand Duke’s owl henchmen. But it turns out that Chanticleer has actually become a huge, Elvis-like singing sensation! How are Edmond and the gang going to get Chanticleer to stop the Grand Duke’s plan of eternal rain?

This plot has been compared to the “movie equivalent of ‘Mad Libs’ (The Nostalgia Critic, “Rock-A-Doodle review.” March 17, 2009)”, and it’s not really hard to see why. However, the very “out there” plot-line is not the movie’s biggest weakness, it’s the continuity. If you re-read the small synopsis, you’ll notice that while it seems that Chanticleer’s crowing didn’t bring the sun up, it turns out that suddenly he does make the sun rise, hence why Edmond and co. need to find Chanticleer and bring him back. This just begs the question: why did the sun rise up without him crowing that one time? Was it all just a ruse concocted by the Grand Duke? Did the sun happen to come in at an earlier time than usual? Or, as the Nostalgia Critic (a reviewer of shows and movies that the target audience used to watch back in the day) put it, did “God get bored and wanted to screw around with the rooster, so one day he decided to play yo-yo with the sun”? It’s never explained, and leaves a huge, gaping plot hole that is pretty much the metaphorical albatross around this movie’s neck.

Another aspect that severely cheapens the plot as a whole is the narration. Yes, there is a narrator in this movie, more specifically it’s Patou the dog (played by the late Phil Harris, who you might know as Baloo the Bear from The Jungle Book; I don’t know what to say about that fact that this was his last film role) who explains every single thing that’s either going on or what’s going to happen later in the movie, rather than being subtle or letting the audience figure it out for themselves. This in turn, basically ruins any tension or plot twist that could be considered interesting to the story, and makes it into a “Connect the Dots” puzzle with only 2 dots. This is also done through most of the movie’s musical numbers, sometimes even interrupting the song in the process, almost as if they were ashamed of the songs, or if they figured we couldn’t understand what was going on in the scene. I honestly even think programs like Barney the Dinosaur and Arthur don’t talk down to their audience like this movie did. It feels like I was talked down to like I didn’t have the mental capacity or understanding to figure out that this character was falling in love with that character, or the fact that Chanticleer was closer than Edmond and co. thought.

Which brings me to my next problem that I had with this review: the characters are not compelling. At all. When I think back to the older Don Bluth films, I can remember sharing the fear with Mrs. Brisby in The Secret of NIMH, was concerned for her as she tried figuring out the truth being NIMH, the connection to her husband, and hoped that she could get her family moved to safety. In An American Tale, I cheered when Fievel and the other mice worked together and drove the evil cats away from New York, and cried when Fievel just about gave up trying to find his parents. With Edmond while he was a cartoon cat? I honestly just wanted him to shut up. This is mostly because Edmond’s actor, Toby Scott Ganger doesn’t have that much acting experience (save for a guest-star appearance on the sitcom Cheers and a few Disney Sing-A-Long videos); his main goal is to prove that he’s “a big boy” and not afraid of the Grand Duke, but any time that he opens his mouth and says these kinds of lines, it comes across as being annoying, whining, and bratty. Added to this is that fact that Edmond also has a lisp that give him an Elmer Fudd speech impediment, which I guess was supposed to sound endearing, but it just adds to his annoying personality, as well as make his dialogue very muddled and hard to hear.

The other animals that make up the rag-tag gang to save Chanticleer aren’t that much better when it comes to personality and development either, save for Patou, who despite being Mr. Exposition in the movie, is quite friendly and reasonable as the Straight Man of the group. However, the designated “Jerk” of the group, Snipes the magpie (played by Eddie Deezen, who played Dexter’s rival Mandark in Dexter’s Laboratory) is nothing but a jerk who would rather be eating city food than finding Chanticleer and saving the farm and their fellow friends, as well as the fact that he also exists sorely to make snide, sexist remarks to Peepers about “staying in the kitchen, be a mouse-wife and make cheese”. Peepers the mouse (played by Sandy Duncan, who was Tod’s love interest Vixey in Disney’s The Fox and the Hound and Queen Uberta in The Swan Princess) is just the designated “smart character”, though I personally never saw her do anything smart throughout the movie, save for her piloting a convenient plane whose model and design she just happened to know how to pilot. Chanticleer (played by country singer Glen Campell) isn’t much of a character to write about, and although Christopher Plummer (Charles Muntz, Up) admittedly make the Grand Duke a bombastic villain, his performance is not really saying much.

The animation is also extremely sub-par for a Don Bluth film. The colors are very muddled and dark, and not in the good, typical way of Don Bluth’s color palette; as this just sharply contrasts with the supposed cheery, colorful environment of the movie. Also, for a film made in 1992, when compared to other animated movies made around the time such as Disney’s Aladdin and Fox’s Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, the production values of Rock-A-Doodle look remarkably cheap.

In conclusion, it’s quite sad to see an interesting animation creator such as Don Bluth fall so hard in such a very short amount of time by animated movie standards. When looking back on his earlier films such as The Secret of NIMH, An American Tale, even All Dogs Go To Heaven (which many consider his last greatest work), and comparing them to Rock-A-Doodle, there’s just something that makes you wonder, “Where did Don Bluth go wrong, and why?” Perhaps the best guess is that he cracked under the Disney Renaissance, and for the rest of the 90’s just continued into a downward spiral of futility. Whatever the reason though, Rock-A-Doodle is thankfully overlooked and outright stated by fans of Don Bluth that it doesn’t exist, and for very good reasons. With a plot that has crater-sized holes, characters that you can’t bring yourself to care about no matter how much danger they’re in, and ugly, muddled, underdeveloped art, it’s not quite surprising that people cite Rock-A-Doodle as Don Bluth’s worst movie that he’s ever made.

…Though I’ve heard that The Pebble and the Penguin would beg to differ about that…

Sources:

Rock-A-Doodle on Wikipedia

The Nostalgia Critic: Rock-A-Doodle Review

Rock-A-Doodle on TV Tropes.org

Edit: I posted my two comments to Andrew Steward’s blog and David Dinnison’s blog.

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