Monday, 21 August 2017

The Love-Matic Grampa (aka Moe Szyslak vs The Laugh Track)

Season 8 may well have been the The Simpsons' last truly "great" season (obviously, it depends on who you ask, but there's a general consensus among classic Simpsons fans that the series peaked around Seasons 6-8, with the shark fins beginning to circle somewhere between Seasons 9-11) but it's also a devilishly strange one, which sees the show veer into some very bold and experimental territory while upping the overall air of cynicism by a significant notch. The driving force behind this increased cynicism looks to have been simple anxiety, a natural consequence of a series suddenly waking up and having to contemplate its own mortality. What really sticks out about Season 8, on repeat visits, is just how preoccupied the writers blatantly were with the series' inevitable demise/decline at this point in its run. A number of gags and even entire plots seem tailored to convey this unease that the series had taken things about as far as it could go and the only remaining options were either to quit while ahead or embrace the shark-infested waters looming ominously in the horizon. The first "proper" (ie: non-Halloween) episode of the season, "You Only Move Twice", kicks things off with a practical joke, of sorts (the family moves to another community and the writers were apparently hopeful that they could convince a few gullible souls that this would be a permanent shake-up), but a fairly mild one compared to the mind-bending oddities to come. The height of the season's weird experimental streak came with the penultimate episode, "The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase" (4F20), which first aired on 11th May 1997, and was easily as bizarre and startling an episode as The Simpsons had ever made at the time. The actual season finale, "The Secret War of Lisa Simpson", is by comparison an extremely "safe" episode which bows things out on more conventional note, but ultimately it's Troy McClure's closing statements in "Spin-Off Showcase" which resonate as the season's genuine sign-of, with its implicit warning that, once you've reached your peak, the only way to go is down.

"The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase" is probably best understood as the third in a trilogy of aggressively meta episodes which aired across the latter half of Season 8, and which also consisted of "The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show" and "Homer's Enemy". We might even consider it a tetralogy, with "The Principal and the Pauper" (technically part of Season 9, but originally intended for Season 8) being the last (and, many would argue, the least) of the bunch. What "Poochie", "Enemy" and "Spin-Off" all have in common is that each of them functions as a self-reflexive commentary on the blessing/curse duality of the series having been able to reach this point in its career. "Poochie" plays this the straightest of the three, with a fairly conventional Simpsons plot in which the behind-the-scenes troubles at Itchy & Scratchy are used to express the writers' own thinly-veiled sentiments on the impossibility of their own predicament (the episode does, however, strike a deliberately unsettling note with the addition of Roy, a "hip" Gen-Xer who, mirroring the main Itchy and Scratchy plot, inexplicably joins the Simpsons household only to be hastily written out before the episode is through). "Homer's Enemy" is a little less upfront about its own intended subtext, but a lot starker in its conclusion; it involves a new employee, Frank Grimes, joining the Springfield power plant and growing increasingly exasperated, not only with Homer's wacky buffoonery but with the rest of the town's willingness to accept it as the norm. Grimes, like Roy before him, has blatantly wandered in from the wrong universe altogether and for that reason alone he cannot be allowed to survive the episode - before his inevitable (and, in this case, exceedingly mean-spirited) exit, he gets to throw in a few criticisms on behalf of everyone who felt that the show was growing increasingly detached from the (comparative) realism of the earlier seasons and into a celebration of stupidity and bad work ethics (with Grimes' ultimate fate demonstrating just how lovingly the writers value such feedback). "The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase" demolishes the show's fourth wall entirely and in the process has a lot of fun at the expense of cheesy cop dramas, gimmicky sitcoms and tacky variety shows, as well as the blatant desperation fueling many a spin-off's attempts to eke out a profit off the back of a ready-established property; nestled beneath this slew of stinging mockery, however, is the quiet admission that, yes, perhaps The Simpsons itself was on the verge of succumbing to that very desperation. "The Principal and the Pauper" reiterates some of these aforementioned fixations, with a character, Sergeant Skinner, who is cut from much the same cloth as Grimes, Roy/Poochie and the replacement "Lisa" from "Spin-Off", in that he blatantly doesn't belong in this universe - the joke, in all four cases, revolves around the fundamental "wrongness" of the character in the show's dynamic, but Sergeant Skinner represents by far the biggest threat to the status quo because he's dead set on replacing one of its long-established characters (turns out, the Seymour Skinner we thought we knew all this time was just an imposter). Obviously, the "real" Skinner cannot be allowed to stick around because, as far as the townspeople (and the status quo) are concerned, he's the imposter. Unlike Grimes, Sergeant Skinner is shown enough mercy to exit the episode with his life intact, but he doesn't exactly get a dignified send-off either.

Noteworthy is that fan reaction to the tetralogy grew consistently frostier with each new installment.  "The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show" seems almost universally beloved and is regarded as one of the classics of Season 8, but the conclusion to "Homer's Enemy" proved extremely divisive (for the record, you can put me in the "didn't like it" camp) and not everyone was on board with the sardonic insincerity of "Spin-Off Showcase". This brings us to "The Principal and the Pauper", which may well be the single most controversial episode in the history of the series (writer Ken Keeler has since defended the episode by claiming that he intended it as a preemptive mockery of what he anticipated would be the fans' reaction all along, but not everybody buys that - I personally am quite indifferent to the episode, but I do feel that, tonally, it suffers from an identity crisis which completely negates whatever waggish commentary it might have offered).

"The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase" is not the most popular of the "meta" tetralogy, but it is my personal favourite of the bunch, chiefly because it's such a bizarre and beguiling addition to the series' legacy, one that's always fascinating to watch, even in the places where it doesn't quite succeed. It was so bizarre that some of the show's staff considered it a little too chancy, even for a series which had already broken as much ground as The Simpsons. Series creator Matt Groening was not a fan of the idea when it was originally pitched by Ken Keeler - he makes this clear in the episode's DVD commentary, where he notes that he was at one time "nervous and opposed" to it. Groening explains that his concerns were rooted in a fear that such an episode would do too much damage to the internal "reality" of The Simpsons (although probably no more so than any given Treehouse of Horror episode or the Season 7 episode "The Simpsons 138th Episode Speculator", which "Spin-Off" recalls in using Troy McClure as a host who appears to have temporarily exited the reality of his own show). The bigger risk, one suspects, came in the glaring departures from the show's regular style that would entail in attempting to emulate various forms of genre television - obviously, this would need to be played at just the right level, so that the audience could appreciate the deliberate hokeyness of the venture. What's particularly complicated about "Spin-Off Showcase" is that it goes a step further than simply being a straightforward collection of TV parodies - rather, it uses the whole concept of a spin-off as a starting point for making a statement about the creative shortcomings and misjudgements that pervade the television industry in general, with the paradox that The Simpsons recognises its own place at the top of the boundary-pushing pile while realising that it cannot possibly keep on maintaining that. Robert Sloane writes a very insightful analysis of the episode, along with the more meta aspects of Season 8 in general, in his essay, "Who Wants Candy? Disenchantment In The Simpsons", which can be found in the book Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture, where he ruminates on this very point.

"The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase" is a risky episode, although you could argue that it is not a particularly brave one in the specific targets it chooses, which (even from a 1997 standpoint) hail overwhelmingly from the television of yesteryear. The first segment, "Chief Wiggum, P.I.", takes on the police/detective dramas that were popular in the 1980s, most obviously Magnum, P.I. and Miami Vice (get a load of that Jan Hammer-inspired theme music). The second, "The Love-Matic Grampa" harks back even further to the fantasy sitcoms of the 1960s, in which the mundane life of a nondescript loser was mildly enlivened by their relationship with an unlikely companion, be it a talking animal (Mister Ed), a supernatural being (Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie) or a possessed inanimate object (My Mother The Car). Finally, "The Simpsons Smile Time Variety Hour" sends up variety shows of the late 1960s and 1970s, mainly The Brady Bunch Hour but also Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. It's easier, one assumes, to get the viewer behind this kind of extensive lampooning when it's at the expense of shows which already seem hopelessly outdated and unfashionable by contemporary standards. The challenge was to make the three segments engaging while infusing them with a nagging sense of dread, their failure as hypothetical stand-alone shows feeling like a foregone conclusion. They had to be highly watchable and yet utterly pitiful all at once.

"The Love-Matic Grampa" has its work the most cut out of the three because its parody relies heavily on the intrinsic banality of the situation - the fact that it's so dull and unfunny is kind of the whole point. "Chief Wiggum, P.I." mimics the kind of action-orientated melodrama that lends itself quite readily to spoof, while "Smile Time Variety Hour" keeps things consistently colourful by bombarding the viewer with a whole lot of madcap visual weirdness, even when its humour seems a little out there. "The Love-Matic Grampa" is so low-key by comparison that it's tempting to dismiss it as little more than an exercise in bad writing for bad writing's sake. The AV Club review of the episode, written by Erik Adams, does exactly that, commenting that, "a bad joke is a bad joke is a bad joke.  Not even the heartiest of laugh tracks can disguise it." As usual, though, The Simpsons is attempting something more complex than simply trying to replicate the contrived punchlines and one-liners of second-rate sitcoms, and the laugh track serves a far more artful purpose than to cue a well-trained audience in on when a joke has been attempted. Sloane understands this when he observes that the very presence of a laugh track feels out of place in The Simpsons and that, as such, the viewer is invited to contemplate how troublingly "off" its usage is here. This is evident from the very start of the segment, when a depressed Moe laments that he is "so desperately lonely", only for the laugh track to immediately kick in; the absence of an actual joke, even a bad one, is jarring, making this kind of mirthful reaction to Moe's muted cry of despair seem vaguely disturbing, in Sloane's words, "wholly inappropriate and almost mocking."

As noted, the set-up of "The Love-Matic Grampa" owes a lot to the fantasy sitcoms of the 1960s, most obviously My Mother The Car. There's a small behind-the-scenes in-joke in there, of sorts, for Simpsons producer James L Brooks worked as a writer for that show early on his career (and judging by what's said on the DVD commentary he's a little sensitive on the matter). The charm of fantasy sitcoms (some would say triteness) derives from how they position the bizarre and extraordinary into the context of everyday life - the suggestion being that even if your best friend was something as wonderful as a talking horse, the two of you would still spend an awful lot of time bickering over which TV channel to watch. Truthfully though, "The Love-Matic Grampa" isn't really about My Mother The Car, Mister Ed or their ilk, and from this angle the parody is fairly superficial.* An element of subtle humour is certainly mined from the entire notion that this ludicrous and utterly far-fetched scenario should be used to such thoroughly mundane ends (namely, a possessed love tester machine assisting a socially awkward bartender with his romantic problems), but the segment's true interest lies more broadly in how the laugh track is deployed throughout. It's worth noting that, back in 1997, the laugh track was still very prevalent in live action sitcoms (although the practice was long-dead in animation), with most heavy-hitters of the era - Friends, Frasier**, Seinfeld, etc - seeming quite content to roll with the convention, so "The Love-Matic Grampa" has words to say about its contemporaries too. The show's staff admit on the DVD commentary that the segment is not overwhelmingly authentic to how things work in sitcoms (for example, there's a moment where Moe directly breaks the fourth wall by gesturing to the audience while Abe is spouting off on one of his long-winded anecdotes, which Keeler notes is not a convention borrowed from actual situation comedies).  It's less a deconstruction of sitcom cliches in general than of the specific function of the laugh track in sitcoms. The laugh track in "The Love-Matic Grampa" isn't there to cover for a dearth of jokes (as we might assume would be the case with a more lackadaisical sitcom); rather, it is the joke, albeit one which isn't exactly intended to elicit laughter in the actual audience.

Of the three faux spin-offs, "The Love-Matic Grampa" resonates with me the most because of my own deep-rooted love/hate relationship with the sitcom laugh track, which I previously touched upon in my review of the Family Dog episode "Enemy Dog". I'm not exaggerating when I say that there is something about laugh tracks that I've always found inherently disturbing. As a small child, I can recall being immensely unsettled whenever I heard the sounds of disembodied laughter bellow out in between character dialogue, and that's something that's stayed with me throughout life. I have a deep distrust of sitcom laugh tracks, of how they function and what they represent, yet as is so often the case with the things that make my skin crawl, there's an element of fascination involved too. I find myself drawn to anything that attempts to do something out of the ordinary with a laugh track, to turn it on its head and make us ponder its effects. This is The Simpsons' most prominent stab at tackling the laugh track, so naturally I've found myself returning to it time after time. In my experience it's easily the most misunderstood and undervalued of the three segments, with most viewers preferring the colour and energy of the other two. In a way, I don't blame them. "The Love-Matic Grampa" is a thoroughly (if intentionally) dreary slice of Simpsons, one that largely eschews the show's traditional sense of humour in favour of dabbling with misplaced audience reactions. It's a playful segment but there's something potentially quite alienating about it too.

The artificial audience does more than simply laugh, of course. When Homer breezes in for his obligatory "guest cameo" (as Troy McClure warned us he would), it breaks out dutifully into uproarious applause. This too was a common device in contemporary sitcoms for signalling that the viewer was expected to derive immediate gratification from their prior familiarity with an actor/character, it being the standard reaction whenever an old Cheers cast member showed up at Dr Crane's apartment or when Mr Magnum P.I. himself, Tom Selleck, first appeared as Richard Burke in Friends. In both cases, the applause is our cue that, even if we came to the show with no prior understanding of what we were seeing, we should still regard it as a "special treat". Despite the obvious theatricality of Homer's entrance, his appearance here feels less contrived than the entire Simpson family's in the "Chief Wiggum, P.I." segment - after all, Homer is one of Moe's friends in the series proper and regularly hangs out at his tavern - but that in effect makes the audience's reaction feel all the more baffling. Why are we suddenly being prompted to react appreciatively to something that we see in just about every Simpsons episode? Earlier in the segment, the audience also act as enraptured spectators to the verbal sparring between Moe and Abe, the responses being so heavily overblown as to create the impression that they are actively goading the two on. Moe tells Abe that he "wrote the book on love", to which Abe replies, "Yeah, All Quiet on the Western Front!" This is the kind of spontaneous, synthetically sassy put-down one regularly encounters in sitcom exchanges, and the audience erupts with exaggerated "oooohs". Moe's response, "Aww, kiss my dishrag!", elicits laughter, but this feels less like artificial sitcom banter and more like the kind of churlish, plebeian fling back that Moe actually would say; it's funny because it's so authentically Moe. As such, this is one of the rare moments in the segment where the regular Simpsons humour and the tastes of the canned audience are actually in sync.

Despite the hokeyness of the scenario, Moe remains entirely true to his regular Simpsons characterisation throughout.  Abe for the most part does not; it's difficult to imagine any circumstances in the series proper in which he would take such an active interest in Moe's love life. Initially, he appears to embrace his newfound role with a strange enthusiasm that suggests almost self-awareness that he's now the subject of a fantasy sitcom; he introduces himself as "The Love-Matic Grampa" and buoyantly reiterates statements from the segment's theme song ("I floated up toward Heaven and got lost along the way!") as if purposely trying to imprint the "hooks" of the series upon the viewer. Abe's facade completely falls apart, however, during a scene where he is left alone in a restaurant bathroom and murmurs forlornly to himself, "I've suffered so long...why can't I die?"  We might see humour in this line - after all, Abe here is technically already dead - but it's telling that the canned audience doesn't actually respond. Initially, the laugh track is jarring but as the segment progresses and we become accustomed to its presence, we start to notice just how sparingly it's actually used throughout, with a high number of sad and awkward moments being met with total silence. In the end, the inadequacies of the laugh track are revealed less in its failure to pass off bad jokes as good ones than in its failure to disguise the fundamental desolation that underpins the segment - the patheticness of Moe's non-existent love life coupled with the bleakness of Abe's situation.

The set-up for "The Love-Matic Grampa" is sufficiently ludicrous but on close inspection it is perhaps not very funny - the ostensibly cheery theme song opens with the lyrics, "While shopping for some cans, an old man passed away." Having failed to cross over into the afterlife, Abe now finds himself stranded in a rather undignified state of living death; the only viable way out of his dreary existence has already failed him. In many respects, his undisguised despair during the bathroom sequence serves as the centrepiece for the entire episode, a brutal puncturing not only of Abe's false vigor but of the entire practice of attempting to squeeze more mileage out of a waning show by manufacturing spin-offs when the subject of exploitation really does beg to be put to rest. (We might even interpret Abe's words as merging with the existential angst of The Simpsons in general, in contemplating if it too really wanted to keep on going for as long as it had).

Sloane sees the segment as an indictment of how reliant the sitcom format is on attempting to pre-determine audience reaction through the use of a laugh track; the idea that the viewer can be manipulated into finding the unfunny funny through simple conditioning. Although he notes the self-depreciating elements of "The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase", Sloane identifies a self-congratulatory one too - it wants us to notice just how different the show's regular approach to humour is to that in "The Love-Matic Grampa" and to recognise The Simpsons as superior television (even when it's simultaneously admitting that it may be past its prime). Yet, more than simply sneer at the lameness of sitcoms, "The Love-Matic Grampa" considers how this kind of conditioning is also used to numb the viewer to the pain and drudgery of the characters' existences. There's a cosy, domestic quality to the laugh track (in theory, anyway), a reassurance that everything in this show exists purely for fun and that we can feel safe in laughing at even its uglier moments. "The Love-Matic Grampa", by contrast, presents us with a fairly dismal situation and uses the pre-determined audience reactions implied in the laugh track to heighten our unease at how it plays out. Moe's life isn't massively more enticing than Abe's - although the laugh track initially seems to enjoy his lonely desperation, we hear nary a peep from it later on as he fumbles his way through a dinner date with a pitiful lack of social awareness. Without the supposed "safety net" of the laugh track, his wretchedness as a character feels all the more salient. Sometimes, the misery is accentuated by the sheer cheapness of what the laugh track actually does respond to. Moe's prospective romance, Betty, wanders in from a potentially worrying situation, reporting that she was just in a car accident and needs to use Moe's phone. Betty doesn't appear in the least bit scathed or shaken by what she's been through, but it's troubling just how quickly her own problem is forgotten, with Moe and Abe immediately working on her as a potential suitor. A perfunctory effort is made to link the two threads - Betty agrees to use the love tester machine because she "could use a laugh after that accident" - but as a character, Betty is deliberately written poorly, tending to make sharp 180 degree turns in order to serve the demands of the story. By the end of the scene, she has not only been talked into a date with Moe with minimal prompting, but her mind is also on the possibility of sexual intercourse, her appallingly trite one-liner ("If this love tester is as accurate as it looks maybe we'll be having breakfast too") getting predictably strong approval from the canned audience.  Her aforementioned accident and the telephone call she came in to make no longer seem to matter. The assumption being lampooned in "The Love-Matic Grampa" is that sitcom audiences care little for plotting, creativity or emotional depth and are easily satiated with sassy comebacks, racy innuendo and - this being the 90s - a sprinkling of gay paranoia (Kearney gets mad at the love tester machine for suggesting that he's gay. Not that there's anything wrong with that).

Paradoxically, "The Love-Matic Grampa" concludes with the implicit admission that its set-up was not built for longevity. Unlike the "Chief Wiggum, P.I." segment, where much of the humour derives from the sheer clunkiness with which it attempts to establish itself as a long-running series, continuously emphasising the "exciting, sexy adventures" that will not be coming (to the extent that Wiggum neglects to apprehend a villain for no other reason than to give himself a recurring nemesis), "The Love-Matic Grampa" gives us a more-or-less complete story; there's little attempt to convey the illusion that there could be any further adventures with a desperate Moe and an undead Abe still to come. Following an all-too recognisable sitcom predicament, in which the protagonist attends an important engagement that they then have to keep on awkwardly abandoning, Betty catches Moe arguing with the love tester machine and he finally comes clean with her, only to get the girl anyway because Betty is flattered by the lengths he went to impress her. The upbeat nature of the ending is undercut by the obvious glibness of it all, a parody of the sitcom tendency to find facile solutions to messy problems within half an hour (or in this case, seven minutes). While the majority of fantasy sitcoms would typically involve the protagonist having to keep his chum's supernatural leanings a secret at all costs, here Moe surrenders the truth about the love tester quite casually and with no repercussions, somewhat undermining the suggestion that he could keep spinning wacky charade after wacky charade from their unusual friendship week after week.*** It's hard to imagine this rather limited scenario lending itself to an infinite number of story variations, yet there is a curious sense of "what if?" to the entire affair. For all its obvious weaknesses, we come away wondering how well a sitcom featuring a miserable bartender and a haunted love tester machine really would fare if it was given a chance. Perhaps they have the answer in the same parallel universe where Hollywood Dog amounted to more than just a discarded pilot.

* Send-ups of archaic sitcoms can be a tough sell. 1990s BBC sketch show Harry Enfield and Chums once toyed with a sketch called "Mr Dead The Talking Corpse", a fairly straightforward spoof of Mister Ed, which Enfield admitted only clicked with a very small minority of his audience. Then again, Mister Ed didn't make a massive dent in British popular culture, so many were unfamiliar with the source (of course! of course!) and didn't get just what the hell they were watching.

** Frasier, of course, being one of the rare spin-offs to achieve acclaim and longevity, is kept at a firm distance during the scenes at the Museum of TV and Television, as it doesn't quite fit with the implicit narrative that spin-offs are inherently ill-conceived and doomed to failure. Also, wasn't there another highly successful series from the around the same era which was technically a spin-off from a late 80s comedy sketch show? I can't quite put my finger on it.

*** David Crabtree, the protagonist of My Mother The Car, actually does try to be honest and upfront with his family about his new 1928 porter containing the reincarnated spirit of his deceased mother, but in his case it doesn't go over so well.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Lemmings (1985)

Apple's notorious "Lemmings" commercial from 1985 is one of those special pieces of media that's so phenomenally horrible that it's difficult to know where to begin with it, so let's take it straight from the top.  On 22nd January 1984, during the Superbowl XVIII, an ad was aired which generated so much excitement it was quickly cemented as the gold standard of Superbowl advertising.  The ad in question was for the Apple Macintosh personal computer and featured a plucky young heroine in a Macintosh tank top (Anya Major) sprinting through an Orwellian dystopia and taking on the oppression of an all-seeing dictator (David Graham), armed with only a sledgehammer and her own steely determination.  Developed by advertising agency Chiat/Day and directed by Ridley Scott of Alien and Blade Runner fame, the ad was notable for combining stark and gloomy visuals with a pulse-racing sense of rebellion.  The intended message was that 1984 would not be like Nineteen Eighty-Four, because the underdogs at Apple were not going to let the oppressive regime of IBM go unopposed.  Strike one for the little guys.  Buy a Mac.

The response was wildly enthusiastic, yet ironically the ad had been poorly received by Apple's Board of Directors, who were extremely nervous about showing it.  Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had pushed to have the ad shown during the Superbowl, and in the end they came out looking like the smart ones.  With Apple having been crowned the kings of that year's crop of Superbowl advertising, thoughts swiftly turned to a sequel.  Obviously, it would have to match the epic proportions of "1984", so that the launch of a new Apple ad would always thereafter be seen as an event.  Chiat/Day were once again brought on, only Ridley Scott was unavailable.  In his place, directing duties were assigned to his brother, Tony Scott, who had recently directed his first feature film, vampire pic The Hunger, starring David Bowie and Susan Sarandon, and whose future directorial credits would include Top Gun (1986), True Romance (1993) and Crimson Tide (1995).  The new ad, which promoted the upcoming Macintosh Office, was aired during the Superbowl XIX on 20th January 1985 (an advertising slot for which Apple payed $900,000), but lightning didn't strike twice for Jobs, Wozniak and co.  Instead, the Canned Food Information Council stole their thunder with an ad about a CGI robot's hankering for tinned asparagus.  "Lemmings" could be called a textbook example of the sophomore slump, only that doesn't quite do justice to how much people reviled this thing.  The ad, with its unsettling but still very flippant depiction of a mass suicide, went over like a lead balloon, drawing the very reaction that the Apple Board of Directors had presumably feared when they expressed their doubts about "1984". 

The title "Lemmings" is, of course, a nod to the erroneous idea that lemmings commit mass suicide by hurling themselves off cliffs as a means of self-regulating their populations.  These kinds of myths about the animal kingdom tend to be perfectly silly and harmless, until Disney gets it into their heads that it would make for great documentary footage and decides to induce their own lemming mass "suicide" while the cameras are rolling, resulting in a pile of dead furry bodies and one of the most disturbing stories in Hollywood history.  Speaking of Disney...what the hell is that song from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs doing here?  Yes, I know that it's a convenient shorthand for conveying that this morbid ritual is somehow business-related, but tonally it's all wrong for this scenario and has the effect of making the ad seem even more crass and mean-spirited than it otherwise would have done.  It's also odd that Disney apparently approved the use of their song in this incredibly dark context, but then maybe the runaway success of "1984" was enough to sway them.

The general consensus among commentators (including Daniella Hernandez in this article on Wired) is that "Lemmings" failed because it committed the cardinal advertising sin of openly scorning the very consumers it was looking to resonate with.  Turns out, when you liken prospective clients to mindless drones marching blindly toward oblivion they might interpret that as you giving them a particularly brazen middle finger and respond in kind.  There was also the small matter that, for the product itself, the promised launch date of 23rd January 1985 proved to be premature - Macintosh Office could not deliver the business revolution the ad had (somehow) intended to convey, because the file server on which it depended would not be available until 1987.  It was a PR nightmare for Apple; in their haste to capitalise on the momentum of "1984" they had touted their upcoming product too soon, and now all they had to show for their efforts was a sixty-second commercial that was insulting to IBM fans and lemmings alike.

Still, Luke Dormehl raises an interesting point in this article on Cult of Mac, when he questions if the much-loathed "Lemmings" was really that far removed from its highly-acclaimed predecessor "1984" (above).  Both offer visions of a bleak dystopia in which the unquestioning conformity of IBM users is contrasted against the defiance of a lone Mac devotee.  In both cases, the former are depicted as oppressed masses, stripped off all individuality, shuffling submissively in single file.  How is it that one should be held to such esteem and the other should be so reviled when they were essentially cut from the exact same cloth?  (Dormehl's report that Apple received a complaint from an Auschwitz survivor who saw "Lemmings" as making light of the Holocaust is particularly interesting as surely, of the two, "1984" contains imagery that's more obviously reminiscent of concentration camps - in fact, according to this Forbes article, that was one of the reasons why the board of the directors had felt so shifty about showing it).  In many respects, "Lemmings" was very transparently an attempt to recreate "1984", on the assumption that if the public had eaten up that ad then they would presumably want more of the same - bleak, dystopian visuals with a message suggesting that Apple represented boldness and non-conformity in a world where consumers were goaded to believe that that they were all stuck with the same one choice.  One assumes that the executives who'd objected to "1984" were also more reluctant to speak out against the formula this time, making it a bad combination of bolstered confidence and the wrong lessons being taken from the success of "1984".

Where "Lemmings" went wrong, Dormehl argues, was in lacking any kind of cathartic conclusion where the Mac's defiance ends up saving the day or at least putting a dent in the all-powerful IBM's authority - after all, the single "lemming" who removes his blindfold and stares into the abyss potentially saves his own skin but there isn't any inkling of him discovering the power to turn this situation around in any way.  In fact, the implication at the end of the ad is that this grim ritual will continue and all that the enlightened lemming's only recourse is to discreetly step out of it.  Dormehl is quite correct, but there are two further points I would add to his analysis.

Firstly, there's the incredibly confused tone of "Lemmings", with its mix of authentically harrowing imagery and failed attempts at warped humour.  "1984" got the balance just about right - it was a pretty cheeky ad, with its depiction of Apple as feisty freedom fighters and IBM as Orwellian villains, but it took itself and its message seriously enough to be genuinely gripping and exciting where it needed to be.  "Lemmings" takes a nightmare scenario and tries to make it more mind-bogglingly twisted by pasting an upbeat Disney tune on top.  It's a case of taking itself too seriously and then not seriously enough.  There's a certain degree of absurdity in the depiction of the blindfolded business folk as they go shuffling along blithely to their doom, but the bits in which we actually see them falling, and their companions' hands reaching out feebly in confusion, are genuinely shocking, and the accompanying choice of music does the sequence no favours.  Really, the inclusion of "Heigh Ho" may be this ad's single greatest sinking factor.  On the one hand, using a Disney tune in an ad where corporate underlings are shown to fall to their deaths from atop a cliff is eerily appropriate in that it calls to mind that time when Disney callously murdered a whole bunch of lemmings for the sake of a fake documentary, but something tells me that wasn't what Apple had in mind.  I cannot wrap my head around the sheer wrongness of how that tune is incorporated here; it's so incongruous that it's simply spiteful, and detracts from whatever poignancy and tension the imagery might have offered, making the ad horrifying in a manner that's more off-putting than involving.  Maybe there is a potentially powerful message to be mined from this type of scenario, but Apple's execution doesn't come close to nailing it.

Secondly, "Lemmings" has much the same problem as Levi's Kevin the Hamster ad from 1998, in that it presents its audience with a deliberately unsettling scenario and doesn't justify it by clearly linking it to the product it's attempting to sell them.  The metaphor in this case flat-out doesn't fit, and you can tell that the ad's scriptwriter really had to stretch things in order to give off the impression that it does.  The whole "you can look into it" line, pertaining to the surviving lemming removing his blindfold and gazing down at his deceased brethren, feels entirely forced.  What does not stepping off a cliff and falling to your death have to do with whether you're a Mac or a PC anyway?  Unless of course it's to suggest that the type of people who'd use IBM are such an unoriginal, obedient lot that they wouldn't think twice about walking straight into peril if everyone else was doing it.  True, "1984" portrayed them as submissive masses too, but there the joke was more at the expense of IBM itself than IBM's users.  Here...well, it's obvious why people weren't won over by it.

On that note, this article by Ken Segall contains some interesting information on the ad's conception, including the revelation that it was actually taken from a discarded pitch idea which had been devised for General Electric by British advertising agency Collett Dickenson Pearce (CDP) some time prior and was originally intended to signify the state of the US economy.  That might go some way toward explaining why the central metaphor here seems so forced, as it was adapted from an ad outline which had set out to convey something different altogether.  In Segall's words, the thinking behind the revised ad was that "American business [was] stuck in its ways and needed something better".  Maybe it sounded workable on paper, but it totally doesn't come across in the finished ad, particularly if being "stuck in one's ways" is treated as tantamount to mass suicide.  Then again, if you're going to use imagery of any kind of mass killing to try and sell a product, then common sense dictates that you had better tread extremely lightly.  Maybe the concept wouldn't have worked out any better in CDP's original intended form.  Perhaps General Electric dodged a bullet in not getting it.

Apple were left so wounded by the negative reaction to "Lemmings" that they abandoned all aspirations of making their Superbowl advertising into a yearly tradition and it took until 1999 for them to get back in the game, this time with an ad featuring cinema's most affable artificially intelligent baddie, HAL 9000.  Whereas Apple had previously sought to reassure people that 1984 would not be like Nineteen Eighty-Four, here they were looking to capitalise upon pre-Y2K anxieties by goading them into believing that 2001 could very well be like 2001: A Space Odyssey, at least in the sense that all non-Mac computers might go rogue and start conspiring to bump off their owners.  "Look Dave, I'm sorry that I'm a murderer and all, but it's really not my fault.  The Millennium Bug made me do it."  Yeah, needless to say, that one dated fast.

There is one additional advantage that "1984" had over "Lemmings", and that's that it will always have resonance due to Nineteen Eighty-Four's enduring status as a literary classic. Despite tying itself to a specific year which has long been and gone, George Orwell's chilling vision of dystopia will forever be timeless.  Apple's "1984" was very much an ad of the moment; it came along at exactly the right time to springboard off of the book and into zeitgeist in a way that could never again be repeated, but it's a cultural reference that people will always understand and appreciate.  "Lemmings" is based on a pretty obnoxious misconception about lemming behaviour that frankly needs to dissipate.  And bringing Disney into the equation only makes it worse.

Still, despite my own deep-seated dislike for the inspiration behind this ad, I'll admit that there is something about "Lemmings" that resonates with me, in that it plays out like such an authentically pure nightmare.  Tony Scott made good on his end of the deal and produced a visually arresting piece, one which, provided you take out that intrusive Disney song, could form the basis of a really effective horror short.  I just think it was terribly misguided to think that it could be used to sell Macintosh Office.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

VHS Verve: All Dogs Go To Heaven (1989)

Back when I wrote my rather anti-nostalgic review of The Land Before Time, I admitted that I've never been a great admirer of Don Bluth and tossed in a couple of pointed barbs at All Dogs Go To Heaven in particular.  Truth is that I've been feeling a tad uneasy about that ever since. It's not that I feel that my criticisms of the film were necessarily invalid, but it would only be fair for me to explain that a lot of my vitriol toward Dogs is rooted the thoroughly unhappy experience I had trying to watch it as a six year old. Back then, my family were in the habit of making weekly visits to our local VHS rental store, where my brother and I each got to pick out a title and we would alternate each week on who go to watch their respective choice first. One week, being a naive nipper who was easily swayed by box art featuring colourful cartoon animals, I chose All Dogs Go To Heaven while my brother went straight for the hot new release, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And unlucky me, that week it happened to be my brother's turn to watch his pick first. I sat through that tedious, 143-minute long Kevin Costner vehicle, anxious for the end-credits to start rolling so that I could finally get to the film that I wanted to see. After what felt like an eternity, Kevin Costner and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio were kissing, a nice friendly "The End" title card popped up and Bryan Adams started screeching his heart out about his all-encompassing altruism, at which point I jumped up, punched the air with enthusiasm and hollered for Dogs. And then...I was in for just about the most curiously unengaging viewing experience I think I'd ever had within those first six years of life. Suddenly, the Kevin Costner vehicle seemed like a positive lark.

At age six, I'm not sure if I could articulate, even to myself, exactly what it was that I didn't like about this film.  I doubt it was the trauma of seeing a cartoon German Shepherd get pulverized by a runaway cab - I saw Benji The Hunted at the same age, after all, and my horror at that film wound up becoming the stuff of affection (not to mention, the title always made it blindingly obvious that there was going to be a sprinkling of canine carnage therein).  I think I just found the film's tone in general to be incredibly alienating. In fact, I suspect that the seeds of my lifelong enmity toward Don Bluth may well have been sown on that very afternoon.  I was left so bewildered that years later, when when my love of animation progressed from merely renting VHS cassettes to taking an active interest in the history of the industry, I felt a strange pang of schadenfreude upon learning that Dogs had not been a particularly well-received film (once again, I tip my hat to the ultra-concise review of Halliwell's Film Guide: "Skillful animation goes to waste in a confused and confusing narrative") and had marked a downward turning point in Bluth's career.  There was a time when pretty much everything I reference I came across to this film was positively scathing.  Nowadays, its reputation seems to have improved somewhat, with a lot of people championing Dogs as Bluth's last genuinely good film before he went on to make this phenomenal piece of mind-fuckery about a rooster who goes to an unspecified US city to make a career as an Elvis impersonator (note: Rock-a-Doodle has been earmarked for a future VHS Verve, if only because I am really intent on digging up all of my childhood demons here). The churlish part of my psyche would like to attribute this to the kids who grew up with the film giving it a free pass because of nostalgia - and nostalgia, as we know, can do funny things to a person's brain (heck, Space Jam and Pokemon: The First Movie are now fondly-regarded nostalgic classics despite enduring a merciless drubbing from everyone older than twelve upon release). Nevertheless, I became deeply conscious of the fact that I'd never actually sat down with Dogs and given it a second chance - oh, I'd seen bits and pieces of it over the years, but never once tried to watch the film in its entirety again - and my current opinion on the film was still strongly informed by my impressions as a six year old. Perhaps the older me could appreciate it on levels that six-year-old me simply couldn't? Could it be that Bluth and I had simply gotten off on the wrong foot?

In the end I resolved to get hold of a copy of the VHS and give it another watch, largely to test if my vitriol would still endure after all these years. I tried to approach it with an open mind, despite my issues with Bluth in general, so what follows is a 100% honest overview of my updated opinions on All Dogs Go To Heaven.

First, though, some context. As I noted in my review of The Land Before Time, Bluth wasn't exactly wild about the constraints placed on him while working with the big boys, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, at Amblin Entertainment (even if they did bring him some of the greatest box office returns of his career), and Dogs was supposed to an attempt to get back to making films his way, without the interference of pesky studio executives. Bluth's production house, Sullivan Bluth Studios, had recently relocated to Ireland and were able to secure a three-film deal with UK indie company Goldcrest Films. Despite Bluth's intentions of attaining greater creative control over his films, it appears that Dogs, much like Land Before Time, was subjected to some post-production tampering in order to excise a few scenes that might be too scary for the little 'uns. Odds of a director's cut ever happening are also extremely low, because somebody stole Bluth's personal copy of the uncut film (I hope that the lucky thief wasn't too disturbed by what they found). Also like Land Before Time, Dogs found itself in direct competition with Disney's offering for that year, opening on 17th November 1989, the same day as The Little Mermaid.  Anyway, you know how this story ends. The Little Mermaid was Disney's major comeback film (following the modest success of Oliver and Company the previous year) and loudly announced the beginning of the company's Renaissance era. Dogs...well, it died a dog's death by comparison. It took the greater commercial failure of Rock-a-Doodle for it to really crunch, but this is where it all started to go to pieces for Bluth.

Strangely enough, even though it flopped at the box office and ended Bluth's run as a viable Disney competitor, All Dogs Go To Heaven may well be the Bluth film to most successfully permeate popular culture, if all on account of its striking and unusual title. You will find shout-outs to it in various places, including The Rugrats Movie (1998) and episodes of King of The Hill and Family Guy (there's also a pretty head-scratching reference to the film in one of Balto's DTV sequels). People still remember that title, even if I'll wager that the vast majority couldn't tell you a single thing about the film's plot (other than what the title itself implies). The idea behind the title, as explained in the film's dialogue, is that all dogs are guaranteed a place in Heaven because, unlike people, dogs are naturally good, loyal and kind.  Well, that's what the Whippet Angel (Melba Moore) tells us when our protagonist, Charlie B. Barkin (Burt Reynolds), meets her at the pearly gates, and I don't know if Bluth genuinely believes that dogs are that wonderful or if he's attempting some form of ironic humour, but it's absolutely not borne out by anything we witness down in the land of the living.  Dogs, as this film would have it, are absolute dickwads. They're sleazy and selfish, they exploit and abuse other animals for profit and amusement, they're mean-spirited and revenge-driven and they'll think nothing of falsely imprisoning a little lost orphaned child if there are a few handy betting tips to be mined from her. The only adult dog we ever meet who's a paragon of virtue is a female collie (Loni Anderson) who runs what appears to be an orphanage for unwanted puppies. The rest are, at best, seedy gamblers and, at worst, murderers and child abusers. Bluth's representation of canine culture is the very epitome of cruelty and vice and it's clear that rats, horses, even gators are much nicer, gentler souls.

Actually, that may well have been the reason why this film left me so cold as a six-year-old.  The world of Dogs is dank, desolate and thoroughly uncongenial, and Charlie B. Barkin is such a mean-faced prick that it's difficult to care terribly whether he has his retribution on his killers or not. Right from the start, I think we're supposed to view Charlie as more a lovable con man than a cold-hearted thug, although the best you can really say about him is that he's blatantly the lesser of two evils compared to his back-stabbing business partner, a cigar-chomping pit bull terrier named Carface (Vic Tayback). We're a long way into the film before Charlie shows any hint of redemption, prior to which there's very little to make him sympathetic, engaging or even likeable in an anti-hero sense. Obviously, Dogs was designed to be Bluth's tribute to the gangster films of the 1930s, with a plot that draws particularly heavily from the Shirley Temple vehicle Little Miss Marker (1934), and fans of the man who see him as the anti-Disney will no doubt revel in the film's dour tone and its decidedly un-kid friendly (at least from a modern perspective) depictions of smoking, gambling and other such vices. Nevertheless, the film's vision of an old timey canine underworld is sorely lacking in charm, inventiveness and intrigue, and as per usual with Bluth, I find the so-called edginess (which is superficial at best) to be a thin veneer concealing what is, when all is said and done, an unholy mess of a plot. I will give Dogs this much - it's an oddball film, and there's certainly nothing else quite like it (for better or for worse). Like a number of Bluth's post-Amblin pictures, there's a definite "scribblings on a cocktail napkin" feel to the premise; a novel idea which no doubt sounded promisingly quirky at its moment of conception but couldn't withstand the drudgery of the story development process. In my Land Before Time review, the specific criticism I leveled at Dogs had regarded its "all-out narrative messiness", a gripe which, on reevaluating the film, I find remains very much intact.

The film opens in New Orleans, 1939, where we find Charlie escaping a high-security dog pound with help from his sidekick, a neurotic dachshund named Itchy (Dom DeLuise). The two of them return in triumph to the derelict casino that Charlie co-owns with Carface, unaware that the scheming pit bull has been wanting rid of him for ages.  Carface orchestrates a plan to stealthily bump off Charlie by getting him intoxicated and then sending an unmanned vehicle hurtling in his direction; Charlie subsequently awakens to find himself in the afterlife but is able to cheat the system and return to his corporeal existence through a method so simple that I'm surprised the angelic whippet apparently doesn't see it coming. Hungry for vengeance, Charlie snoops on Carface and discovers the secret to his solo success: a lonely orphaned girl named Anne-Marie (Judith Barsi), who has a Dr. Dolittle-esque knack for conversing with animals, and is being held captive within the deep dark depths of Carface's casino so that he can use her insights into the private lives of racing rodents to rig the odds on the casino's rat race tracks. Charlie proceeds to abduct Anne-Marie and coaxes her into joining forces with him, promising to find her a family in exchange for her services in picking out winners at various animal-related sporting events (initially, it's established that animals do not speak a universal tongue and dogs are restricted to communicating only with other dogs - a rule that gets completely tossed out as we near the end of the film). It isn't long before Charlie has her roped into a life of petty thievery, helping him to pick the pockets of the well-dressed middle classes she longs to be a part of one day. As Charlie reaps the rewards of his child exploitation, Anne-Marie grows increasingly dissatisfied with the arrangement, and starts to question if Charlie actually intends to make good on his promise. Meanwhile, Carface gets wind of the fact that Charlie is not only alive but has stolen his precious commodity, and hatches up a dastardly new scheme to pick off the slippery German shepherd with a high-tech laser gun (wait, are we still in 1939 here?  Oh, whatever).

It's here that I hope to appease Judith Barsi fans for giving her performance as Ducky in The Land Before Time such a drubbing (as a Kiki's Delivery Service fan, I'm all-too aware of how sensitive people can be when it comes to appraising the final works of a deceased cast member, particularly one who died in horrifically tragic circumstances), because I actually think she's pretty good as Anne-Marie. It's a much more restrained performance than she gave in TLBT, one that relies less on overt cutesiness than on understated longing and forlornness, and she imbues the character with such convincing vulnerability that it honestly sent shivers down my spine in contemplating what Barsi was having to contend with in her personal life at the time. The developing bond between Charlie and Anne-Marie forms the emotional thread of the story, and thankfully it does offer genuine resonance. As hard as it is to get invested in the whole business with these miscreant mutts and their infatuation with gambling and casinos, we truly do care that sweet Anne-Marie ends up loved and well. I cannot overstate just how important this is, as it would have been all-too easy to make a character of Anne-Marie's archetype insufferably saccharine (characters who pile on the cuteness to an intolerable degree are no strangers to Bluth's filmography - just look at Fievel and Ducky - but for some reason he got it right on this occasion). There's only one sequence involving the character which skirts dangerously close to being overly cloying - a scene where Charlie and Anne-Marie are spending the night together in an abandoned car and Anne-Marie pesters Charlie with her drawn-out bedtime routine. It goes on for far too long and there are points therein where Anne-Marie seems vomitously reminiscent of Penny, the ghastly little cipher from The Rescuers (1977) - a film which, incidentally, was one of the defining projects of Bluth's career as a Disney animator. Other than that, she's a well-implemented character.

The single most admirable component of All Dogs Go To Heaven would, of course, be its wonderfully fluid and vibrant animation, which contains arguably some of the strongest character work of Bluth's career - Charlie may not be a particularly engaging character on the personality front, but he sure is a marvel to look at, the liveliness of his movements and mannerisms more than compensating for Reynolds' rather underwhelming vocal performance. Visually, it works a lot better than Disney's similarly canine-orientated Oliver and Company from the year before it, and even stacked up against the mighty mermaid it manages to hold up pretty well.  Unfortunately, this is the only area in which Dogs can even vaguely withstand being measured up against what Bluth's old mates at Disney were up to at the time, although it certainly begs for such comparisons. Like An American Tail, Dogs is a musical in the traditional Disney mold, although compared to the bumper crop of excellent numbers put together by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken for The Little Mermaid, finds itself cursed with a decidedly runtier litter, with only one song, "Let Me Be Surprised", managing to sound half-way memorable or tuneful. As a musical, I like it better than An American Tail - certainly, there's nothing here to match the sheer tooth-rotting malevolence of "Somewhere Out There", the majority of songs being more-or-less harmless (assuming that you're not put out by Itchy's crude Asian caricature in the vaudeville-style "Can't Keep A Good Dog Down") but also weak and dispensable. Their slapdash placement adds to the uneven pacing of the story, at one point even requiring it to be put on hold so that Charlie can regale a rambunctious swarm of four-legged urchins with a song about the virtues of sharing (what this serves in narrative terms is beyond me, other than to hammer home the implication that deep down Charlie's a more virtuous soul than he lets on).  This is immediately followed by another more functional, if no more memorable song about Anne-Marie's yearning for a family.

To my understanding, much of the cut material from Dogs pertains to a sequence where Charlie goes to sleep and has the canine equivalent of the Spooky Mormon Hell Dream (only considerably more dull - there's no coffee-induced dancing in this one). Personally, I don't recall being all that frightened by this portion of the movie as a child, possibly because I was certainly older than six when I learned of the concept of damnation (presumably from watching Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey), so to me this was nothing more than a random dream sequence (for the record, when the Whippet Angel tells Charlie that he can never come back I took that to mean that he'd be doomed to walk the Earth forever as an angry ghost). Rewatching it as an adult, I found the beginnings of this sequence, as Charlie grapples feebly against an electrical storm threatening to pull him into a monstrous abyss, to be genuinely quite unnerving, but the instant as he drops down into an entirely generic fire and brimstone Hell and comes face to face with an utterly risible-looking dog-faced Satan, the whole thing fell painfully flat to me. Nowadays, it's the film's vision of Heaven that strikes me as being oddly insidious; no dispute that it's a pretty-looking place, the sequences where Charlie and the Whippet Angel glide among the clouds above a nocturnal New Orleans being among the most visually arresting in the entire film, but with all its emphasis upon order, constancy and certainty it comes across as being eerily reminiscent of the old Twilight Zone episode, "A Nice Place To Visit" (and a twist along those lines honestly wouldn't have felt out of place here). Whatever else you can say about him, Charlie has a point when he complains that part of the pleasure of existing comes in not knowing what a new day might bring. It's an interesting philosophical quandary that's not exactly addressed by the film's resolution, where, having learned to care for Anne-Marie and sacrificed his life to save her, Charlie earns his right to return to Heaven (bet you didn't see that coming, huh?).  That's all well and good, but has Charlie's outlook on dwelling in the realm of no surprises actually changed at all? Has learning to value something other than his own hedonistic urges caused him to accept that there are bigger things in this world and that he needs now to step aside, content in knowing that Anne-Marie will be living a full life in his stead? Or has he merely had fear of the alternative knocked in him by his brief encounter with the doggy devil? The ending doesn't specify.  All that matters is that the hardest thing about letting go of his Earthly existence, this time, is having to part ways with Anne-Marie, and the film really latches on to this emotional hook, working hard to leave the viewer with such a teary final impression that they'll be willing to overlook the tumultuous mare's nest leading up to it.

As noted, the premise of Dogs is not especially well-developed, but it just about maintains momentum until the third act, at which point a singing, sewer-dwelling alligator voiced by Ken Page worms his way into the script and utterly savages whatever narrative coherence was still hanging on for dear life therein. In this one character we can observe everything that's hopelessly out of whack with Bluth's sense of story aesthetic - he's introduced out of nowhere, to the extent that our heroes have to take an awkward detour from the main narrative thread simply to encounter him, the film's internal logic is completely strangled the second that he enters (Charlie and the gator can clearly speak to one another, which disregards the all-important plot point that only Anne-Marie can communicate with animals outside of her own species - what makes this gator such an exception?) and he's shoehorned in for what have to be the cheapest story purposes imaginable. I'm aware, of course, that several years ago the character became the subject of a questionable internet meme; I've no idea how relevant that meme still is today, nor do I particularly want to go into it, other than to argue that the gator from Dogs was never a particularly apt representation of what the meme's creator intended it to signify. The problem with the alligator is not that he's a random bit of weirdness added in on the assumption that the audience appreciates the weird and the random for entirely its own sake (that I couldn't really voice much objection to - I've made it plain how much I love Tamatoa from Moana, and that's not an altogether inaccurate summary of his character's own raison d'etre). The real problem with the gator is that he's introduced very late in the game for no other reason than to serve as Charlie's Get Out of Jail Free card during the final showdown with Carface. Charlie has this random excursion down in the sewers of New Orleans and is befriended by this character for entirely arbitrary reasons, just so that he can later show up and rescue Charlie when Carface looks to have him licked. It's evident that Bluth had no idea how to end this story - other rather, that he knew how he wanted the story to end but fumbled when it came to connecting the crucial narrative dots - and there's a lot about the resolution in general that rings entirely hollow. For example, we have the implication that Anne-Marie, having found the loving adoptive parents she's always wanted, will also take in Itchy as her pet, despite she and Itchy never being shown to form any kind of meaningful bond over the course of the film; in fact, earlier that very evening Itchy was all for dumping Anne-Marie in an orphanage so that he and Charlie could focus on their own relationship (somehow, I have this uneasy feeling that Itchy isn't going to stick around and accept his appointed role as Anne-Marie's house pet). Similarly, Carface's own scrawny underling, Killer (Charles Nelson Reilly), undergoes a hasty last-minute redemption where he pushes an unconscious Anne-Marie to safety, having shown zero concern for her welfare at any other point in the film.

Really though, the biggest weakness that Dogs has, in narrative terms, is that it's just so sloppily edited, although not in the same manner as The Land Before Time, where it was evident that quite a lot of material had been excised. In Dogs' case, there's little attempt to have the film's assorted sequences transition cohesively into one another, with Bluth overwhelmingly opting to round off each individual scene with an awkward fade-out or iris shot, which has the effect of making the entire story appear disjointed and episodic, almost akin to watching several separate installments from a TV serial cobbled together haphazardly. It looks crude and amateurish as hell, and the impact on the overall flow of the narrative is disastrous, and yet Bluth clearly didn't see a thing wrong with the results, for he deployed the exact same approach when making Rock-a-Doodle.

What I DO like about the story is the cyclic nature of the ending, with Carface, freshly murdered by the Gator King and itching for vengeance, setting the wheels in motion for his own ill-gotten return to Earth and (Charlie assures the viewer) his own off-screen redemption story.  The implication that even a dog as rotten to the core as Carface could make amends for his evil deeds is certainly an uplifting one. While I'm in a more complimentary frame of mind I'll also give props to the specific scene where Charlie returns from the dead and has an extended moment where he chokes incessantly, as if his body is having a hard time readjusting to life after lying motionless at the bottom of a lake for several minutes. It's a nice touch which makes his resurrection seem that bit more unnatural and freaky, and the build-up to the moment in question, which involves Charlie startling the wits from a mange-ridden cat, has a spooky, B movie horror-esque vibe which is pulled off fairly slickly. The film as a whole I still don't care much for, but I'll admit to really digging that one isolated scene.

The Verdict:

Revisiting All Dogs Go To Heaven, I feel as if an odd weight has been lifted from my shoulders, as though I've stared deep into the soul of something that bothered and bewildered the hell out of me as a child and realised that it was entirely silly and harmless all along. In a way, I can understand why people might be inclined to like this film, on the basis that it's so strange, random and confusingly plotted, but the argument that it's a misunderstood masterpiece that had the misfortune of going head-to-head with Disney's big comeback hit really doesn't hold weight. Ultimately, it's a heavily flawed film with ideas above its station, and Disney's own return to form merely accentuated why, though he was sufficiently gifted in the artistic department, Bluth's narrative-building was too disordered for him to be the true successor to the master storyteller Walt. Is there any lingering chance of a reconciliation between myself and Mr Bluth? Well, possibly, but I'll save that for my review of Rock-a-Doodle.