Rando Family! Rock A Doodle (1992)
Welcome to the very first entry in Rando Family (named after Random Family, one of my wife's favorite books)! It’s a new/old column devoted to intriguing randomness in Family Entertainment featuring movies I may or may not be watching with my three year old son Declan anyway. Our first entry comes from one of my favorite disseminators of pop-culture randomness, the good folks over at Olive Films.
The pop culture ephemera Olive puts out generally has at least something going for it. In the case of Rock A Doodle, that’s director Don Bluth, a Disney veteran who had the chutzpah and the bravery to strike out on his own and take on his old employers with Don Bluth Productions. He initially experienced tremendous success with a series of hits, some in collaboration with Steven Spielberg, including 1982’s The Secret of NIMH, 1986’s An American Tail, 1988’s The Land Before Time and 1989’s All Dogs Go to Heaven.
All Dogs To Heaven was less successful, critically and commercially, than the films it followed, but Rock A Doodle really kicked off the “failure” stage of Bluth’s previously charmed career, as he churned out a series of ambitious but muddled critical and commercial flops: 1994’s Thumbelina, 1994’s A Troll in Central Park, 1995’s The Pebble and the Penguin and 2000’s Titan A.E. Bluth’s only success following All Dogs Go to Heaven was 1997’s Anastasia. Rock A Doodle marked a turning point in Bluth’s career, where the momentum turned negative and the modest hits were replaced by big, high profile flops.
It’s easy to see why Rock A Doodle did not connect with critics or audiences. It’s almost impressive how many half-realized and muddled ideas it manages to fit into 65 minutes. It’s a rollicking, tune-filled take on Elvis mythology, with a disturbingly sexy rooster voiced by Glen Campbell whose crow makes the sun come up taking the place of the King of Rock and Roll. No, it’s an animal adventure movie about country animals running amok in the big city! No, it’s an intermittently scary and intense fantasy with a disturbing villain out of Bluth’s famously nightmare-inducing The Secret of NIMH! No, it’s a live-action/animated romp a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit that finds a live-action human boy getting sucked into a story and transformed into an animated kitten destined for unlikely heroism!
Rock A Doodle is all of those things and more. No wonder test groups found it confusing. They also found it inappropriately sexual as only a film released in the shadow of Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s success can be. Parents apparently complained so much about the cleavage of female romantic lead Goldie Pheasant that it was dialed down but don’t worry: if you want to see animated bird cleavage and chicken breasts good enough to eat, Rock A Doodle has got you covered, you weird pervert carnivore you. Let’s just say that Bluth and his animators seemingly had an audience of Furries in mind when they designed both Chanticleer, who is supposed to be Elvis-on-The Ed Sullivan Show hip-swiveling sexy, and his lady friend Goldie Pheasant. They just might not have known it.
Bluth added narration from a dog voiced by legendary voiceover artist Phil Harris in an attempt to make the film easier to follow, but I got confused nonetheless, to the point where I re-watched the opening and I’m still semi-confused.
But what I’ve been able to piece together is that Chanticleer (the late Glen Campbell) is a cocky rooster whose job on the farm is to crow so powerfully that it brings about the sunrise every day. Then one day an evil henchman of the sunlight and rock-hating Grand Duke of Owls (an appropriately terrifying Christopher Plummer) descends upon the farm and gets into a fistfight with Chanticleer so intense that Chanticleer forgets to crow to bring up the sun. The farm animals all turn on Chanticleer like a bunch of fucking assholes, and a despondent Chanticleer leaves for the city to make his fortune, where he quickly becomes a massive, multi-media pop star with a decidedly Elvis Presley-like swagger.
What I’m describing, incidentally, is just a story within a story, because God knows a sixty five minute long movie with this much going on already also needs an elaborate framing device on top of everything else. It turns out the story of Chanticleer is a bedtime story being read to a gratingly adorable little boy named Edmond whose own home is threatened by flood waters, just as the farm became an ominous realm of darkness and rain once Chanticleer leaves in defeat and disgrace.
The boy cries out for Chanticleer, a fictional character in a story he’s being told, but instead the Grand Duke of Owls descends upon his home and threatens to eat him after turning him into a lisping, talking, anthropomorphic kitten, because apparently the little bugger wasn’t cute enough in his original form. Edmond the now animated kitten gets away, and joins a group of animals from the farm, one voiced by Eddie Deezen, in a bid to find Chanticleer and convince him to bring back the sun.
Rock A Doodle was marketed, poorly, as an animated musical about the adventures of a cocky, Elvis Presley-like rooster. This led me to naively assume that that I was in for a, well, animated musical about the adventures of a cocky, Elvis Presley-like rooster. That is so not the case. Not since Sidekicks have I seen such an egregious bait and switch in a 1992 children’s film I’ve written about for this site.
Rock A Doodle was sold on the appeal of Chanticleer but he’s only in the movie for about ten minutes. It’s as if, despite being a fictional character, Chanticleer was simple too big of a star for the filmmakers to have too much of his time, so they had to make due with what little footage of him they could finagle during his very limited time on set.
So the movie doles out Chanticleer sequences stingily. We see him from a distance, as a hero and big star not unlike Chuck Norris in Sidekicks. The Poochie rules seem to apply to Chanticleer as well: he’s not in the movie very much but when he’s offscreen the other characters, human and animal, live action and animated, can’t stop talking about Chanticleer, and how amazing Chanticleer is, and how much they miss sweet, sweet, beloved Chanticleer and can’t wait to get him back. Chanticleer has a hell of an ego, but you would too if your gift for crooning literally made the sun rise every morning.
Watching Rock A Doodle, I was overcome with nostalgia for the increasingly anachronistic art and craft of traditional animation. On a story level, Rock A Doodle is a confusing non-starter. As a musical, it’s uninspired. But as a showcase for animation, it’s terrific. There is an almost masochistic level of attention to detail. The animators work overtime to breathe life and humor into characters the writers neglecting to give much in the way of personality.
I don’t want to be one of those tiresome old people who think everything from the past is better but there’s a humanity and a soul to hand-drawn animation that is wholly absent from computer animation. Yet this is one of those heartbreaking instances where every individual image betrays an enormous amount of sweat and labor and obsessive artistry but the whole does not work on any level beyond providing a showcase for a style of animation that was already on its way out.
Rock A Doodle found Bluth at a weird crossroads. His 1980s Golden Age was over. Hand-painted animation was increasingly being replaced by animation done by computers. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was an extraordinary success that utterly failed to kick off a live-action/animation boom, perhaps because Robert Zemeckis’ instant classic set the bar so prohibitively high for live-action/animation hybrids. Even Bluth would move primarily to computer animation by his final film to date, the 2000 flop A.E.
As an animated film, Rock A Doodle is a triumph of old-fashioned craftsmanship. As a live-action/animated hybrid it’s incredibly clumsy. The live-action sequences are stiff and wooden and a closing sequence where the live-action version of Edmond, whom the farm animals all assume was dead after the Grand Duke of Owl strangles him, invades Chanticleer’s animated world is so clumsy it just looks like a child actor is dancing in front of a large video screen of the cartoon world.
Rock A Doodle is like a lot of the films Olive puts out. I would not describe it as “good” by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t regret watching at all. It’s a muddled, confused mediocrity with character, with personality, with heart. Or maybe it just seems that way because it’s a curious remnant of a world I used to know, a world that has been replaced by the blinding, shining idiocy of, for example, The Emoji Movie.
I was probably unusually susceptible to Rock A Doodle’s corny, old-fashioned charms because I watched it not long after watching, and writing about The Emoji Movie. With that in mind, I would like to end this article about Don Bluth and hand-drawn animation by once again stating, as clearly as possible, man, fuck The Emoji Movie. There is no emoji powerful to convey the extent of my hatred for that movie.
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