Let me give you a behind the scenes on the making of this review series: I had been meaning to revisit HEAVY METAL for a million years, and one day when I had kind of an itch for that weird vibe of early ‘80s animated fantasy I finally did it. Then I thought hey, I should also watch AMERICAN POP again, that would make a good review pairing. And then I thought hey, I’ve always wondered what was up with that ROCK & RULE movie, it could be a series. And then late in the game I thought “Oh shit, that would be funny to end on ROCK-A-DOODLE! I finally have a reason to watch ROCK-A-DOODLE!”
Obviously this one is really different than the others. It turns out it’s not much about rock ’n roll, and I already knew it wasn’t trying to be adult or edgy like the other ones. That’s not why I skipped it in 1991 – I wasn’t opposed to watching G-rated animation. It was the year of ROVER DANGERFIELD, after all! Just kidding, I didn’t watch ROVER DANGERFIELD. Until later. But BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was that year and it was nominated for best picture, so this was pretty much the exact moment in the U.S. when the “adults don’t watch animation” attitude was starting to get pushed back.
It’s directed by Don Bluth, mentioned previously in this series as one of the Disney-influenced alternatives to Disney in the ‘80s. In fact, he was an offshoot: starting as an assistant animator and moving up to directing animator, he worked on SLEEPING BEAUTY, THE JUNGLE BOOK, ROBIN HOOD, THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH, THE RESCUERS, PETE’S DRAGON and THE FOX AND THE HOUND. But later in that run he felt so strongly that the Disney movies weren’t living up to the classical animation legacy of Walt and the generation of artists he’d learned from that he and some of the other animators gathered at his house in their off hours to make an independent short, Banjo the Woodpile Cat, from an idea that the studio had rejected.
Pretty soon it was a full on mutiny – he brought some of his co-workers with him to Don Bluth Productions, set up a groundbreaking profit-sharing contract and made THE SECRET OF NIMH (1982), a movie that certainly follows in the “mice wearing clothes and doing human stuff” tradition of THE RESCUERS, but that has a really eerie and melancholy tone all its own. A strong piece of work.
Bluth had more commercial success teaming with Steven Spielberg for AN AMERICAN TAIL and with Spielberg and George Lucas for THE LAND BEFORE TIME. I reviewed the latter in my Lucas series, and was surprised how good it was, since I kind of thought of it as the ultimate “plop your dumb kids in front of the TV and hopefully they’ll shut up for a minute” movie due to the reputation of its thirteen DTV sequels. Bluth was working successfully within the Disney mode of warm family friendly talking and singing animal movies, but in that context he was kind of a rebel, and he built up a pretty solid and respected body of that type of work. And then right when the audience was most hungry for well-crafted animated features in the Disney tradition he said “My new movie is called ROCK-A-DOODLE and it is about a rooster who dresses like Elvis that is why he is called Rock-a-Doodle although that’s not technically his name but it was just so perfect we had to use it for the title,” and the world joined me in saying “Excuse me for a second, please” and then slipping out the back door to the Office of People Who Watch Don Bluth Movies.
But now here I am doing a series on rock-themed animation, getting nostalgic for the old shit, and I swear to you I came to this more open minded than I would’ve been back then. I was ready to, if not be fully rock-a-doodled, at least enjoy the artistry of that era of animated features. I thought it would be okay.
I never really paid attention to what ROCK-A-DOODLE was about. Turns out it’s kind of insane. Not in a way where it’s not a slog to get through, but at least in a way where I was more entertained by it than ROCK & RULE. Also: 74 minutes including credits. Good choice on that, Don Bluth. Respect.
It begins, like HEAVY METAL, in space. The stars. A narrator (Disney legend Phil Harris, a.k.a. Baloo in THE JUNGLE BOOK, O’Malley in THE ARISTOCATS and Little John in ROBIN HOOD) tells us the story as we zoom in on… a planet? Not a rooster planet. A planet where there is a farm with farm animals living on it. So I figured it was earth. The narrator is immediately revealed as a character within the story, a dog named Patou, who walks on all fours but wears pants and shoes (back feet only) that have really long tangly shoelaces he’s often trying to tie. They seem to think that is quite a funny piece of business to keep coming back to. Anyway he tells us about Chanticleer (Glen Campbell, TRUE GRIT, who is quite good as both speaking and singing voice), the rooster who everybody loved because he would sing and strut around as the sun came up every morning.
There’s a crucial aspect of the premise that I straight up don’t understand. First, Patou says that this is a story about a time when the sun stopped coming up. Then he explains the time a mean owl called The Grand Duke (Oscar, Emmy and Tony winner Christopher Plummer, a little before MALCOLM X) sent a rooster to get in a fight with Chanticleer and he was distracted when the sun came up and “plum forgot” to crow, so all the other animals realized it was not his crowing that made the sun come up and they laughed at him and called him a phony and a fake and he was so humiliated that he left to find work in the city.
The Grand Duke’s scheme is that, because he’s nocturnal, he wants to make the sun stop coming up by getting rid of Chanticleer… which he does by proving that Chanticleer is not the reason the sun comes up. And then after he leaves, the sun stops coming up, and it rains. (So why did it come up that one time? This is really glossed over.)
Okay, whatever, but here’s where the movie surprised me: we cut to live action footage of a boy named Edmond (Toby Scott Ganger, “Tough Kid,” BLACK SHEEP) in bed being read the story of Chanticleer by his mom (Dee motherfuckin E.T.’s friend Wallace). Suddenly in that live action world there’s a dangerous flood, and Edmond gets scared so he calls out the window to the fictional character of Chanticleer, but instead the Grand Duke (animated, and giant) busts into his bedroom and does a magic spell to, obviously, turn him into a kitten who becomes a part of the animated story. (I mean, how else would you deal with a “boy called my enemy from his window during a flood” situation?)
Now the cartoon farm is also flooded, and I guess this is because Chanticleer left, so the animals ask Edmond to help them get to “the city” to find him. At first Edmond says he can’t, because he’s been turned into a kitten. And I have to say, there is not a cell in my body that believes that little goof Edmond would have had any more idea than a kitten how to get to the city. But they persuade him, and they all get in a chest and float for a montage or two and suddenly they’re in what appears to be Las Vegas, but inhabited only by animals. (We know since we’ve seen ROCK & RULE that this means it takes place after The War when only animals survived and they evolved into mutants. Turns out it wasn’t just rats and dogs, it’s also pigs, giraffes, etc.)
Our hapless farm animals wander around Vegas searching for Chanticleer through the power of montage and are too stupid to notice that pretty much every building and surface in the entire city has his picture on it because he’s now a famous singer called “The King.” So then they have trouble approaching him because he’s too famous. There’s a little musical number entirely based around the premise “what if the bouncers were frogs because frogs hop and that is a type of bouncing wouldn’t that be great” and by the short length of the sequence I get the feeling that even Don Bluth realized “No, actually that would not be great at all, that one probly shouldn’t have made it to the ‘say this idea out loud’ stage.” Then again, most of the non-Chanticleer songs are short, so maybe that’s the style. For example, here are the full lyrics to the stupidest Grand Duke song, a quasi-Haunted Mansion organ dirge called “Tweedle-le-dee”:
They’re running out (They’re running out!)
Running out of batt-er-ieeeeeees (Of batt-er-ies!)
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
Not sure if he wrote the lyrics too, but the music is credited to Robert Folk, who did TOY SOLDIERS, BEASTMASTER 2, LAWNMOWER MAN 2 and MAXIMUM RISK, but he’s best known for the POLICE ACADEMY movies. Those are lowbrow and cheesy as shit but it’s truly a great theme song and I honestly think the movies might not have caught on without it.
He did not come up with anything as good for this one.
Anyway, it is my distinct honor and privilege to share with you this still of Chanticleer leaving the building in his famous Peniscopter.
Chanticleer’s manager Pinky (Boss Hogg himself, Sorrell Booke, good casting) conspires to keep his client from returning to the farm by getting a dancer named Goldie Pheasant (Ellen Greene, PUMP UP THE VOLUME, LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL) to rub up on him on stage, which gives him instant sex-madness
and it cuts to them at his place on a hanging couch and she’s singing and pouring drinks into his beak (is that what Patou meant when he said Chanticleer “liked to horse around some”?). But already, less than a minute after this subplot has begun, Patou narrates that Goldie was supposed to seduce him but actually fell in love with him.
Then Chanticleer gets knocked out and there’s a car chase and other hijinks. There’s a part where it zooms into Edmond’s eye, into his brain, where he’s running around being terrorized by memories by one brief part earlier where Peepers asked if he was “a fraidy cat,” as if it’s the “they’re all gonna laugh at you!” moment from CARRIE. In the moment it seemed like absolutely nothing but I guess you never know what’s going on beneath the surface – this kitten boy was ready to snap at any moment.
A few notes. Number one, nobody besides the farm animals seem to notice anything wrong with the world, because this is not a HIGHLANDER II permanent night type situation. I’m pretty sure the sun is coming up, it just looks very dreary and grey. In Seattle we call this “most of the year.” So I gotta respect them for going on a quest to improve this condition. I wish we had thought of that.
Number two, that’s pretty fucked up that one owl is nocturnal so he wants to force his lifestyle on the whole world. They shoulda moonblinked that motherfucker.
Anyway, they wake up Chanticleer and get him to crow again. Patou admits they were wrong, that they needed him to crow, but 1) I did not hear the words “we are sorry for what we did to you” anywhere in there and 2) I don’t see why Chanticleer would give up his career and amazing home on top of a skyscraper to go back to the farm. Just get a new manager, bud. Oh, and 3) in a world of all animals what even is a farm, anyway?
The ending is the funniest part because for some reason Edmond is laying on a mound of dirt magically glistening like he’s Sleeping Beauty or something and the animals gather around mourning his tragic unexplained death even after he transforms back into a photograph of a live action human child. But he comes back to life and dances around on the cartoon farm in his pajamas and pretty much every shot of that made me laugh.
If there is a version of this story that works, imagine an unfinished draft of that, after somebody came in and fucked with a bunch of dials so the tone and the rhythm got out of calibration and then the story got caught in the gears and crinkled up and they had to cut a bunch of random parts out and tape it back together as best they could and in the end you get a what the fuck am I looking at here type of situation but it’s trying to pass itself off as a man aren’t we all just having a great time here? It’s a reasonably-well animated kids movie with the emotional depth of any random episode of a shitty Saturday morning cartoon and a vague undercurrent of fever dream terror.
So there’s no one or two or three or twelve things they could’ve changed to make me really like this movie, but if I had to choose one main disagreement I have with the filmatists would be this: they seem to believe it is cute to have most of the dialogue in a movie spoken by a little boy who pronounces his ‘R’s as ‘W’s. I would argue that it is, in fact, annoying as shit. Nothing against the kid, but did you consider the implications of casting a star who cannot pronounce the central character’s name, then having him say it dozens of times, including a climactic scene where he leads a crowd in chanting it? I feel like maybe you didn’t.
A tragic aspect of ROCK-A-DOODLE is that it shows Bluth, who built his studio on trying to revive the spirit of the Walt Disney classics, making that formula seem entirely bankrupt. Chanticleer fulfills his simple purpose as a rooster singing like Elvis, no more. Every single other character feels completely forced, the work of people with blind faith in some huckster’s formula for cartoon sidekicks guaranteed to delight. I’m not gonna complain that we get a character voiced by Eddie Deezen (1941, FOLLOW THAT BIRD) but no, please send “I guess a magpie, but he wears gloves? Because he’s snooty?” back to the lab. And Peepers (bio: a mouse with glasses) must’ve been intended to be something, because they bothered to hire Sandy Duncan for the voice. You also have Charles Nelson Reilly as… a bird that is the Duke’s nephew?
But most of all the Grand Duke is a terrible villain. He wears a fuckin Dracula cape, lives in a spooky tree, plays an organ – why? The evilness of the songs plays like a Simpsons parody of this type of movie. So much of the movie feels like “I think this is what you’re supposed to do in cartoons?” as opposed to somebody that had a story to tell.
So it should be noted that there is source material. After the success of his 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac, ailing poet and playwright Edmond Rostand moved to the French Pyrenees, where he wrote his most personal play Chantecler, using the metaphor of farm animals to contrast his simple lifestyle to the materialism and artificiality he felt was growing in French society. 25 years after the debut of the play, almost 4,500 miles away in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Presley was born, and the pieces finally began to fall into place to turn Rostand’s love letter to the French countryside into a shitty cartoon about a rooster but he’s Elvis though also, wouldn’t that be fun? Elvis was a human, not a rooster, that’s why it’s funny. This one’s a rooster.
Oh, by the way: ROCK-A-DOODLE is further in the past at the time of this writing than Elvis was when ROCK-A-DOODLE was made. Sleep well!
Bluth pushed the movie’s release around to avoid going head-to-head with BEAUTY AND THE BEAST or FIEVEL GOES WEST (which he wasn’t involved with), but then released it on the same day as the family hit BEETHOVEN, with LADYBUGS also recently released and FERNGULLY coming up in a week. Not that family competition really mattered – ROCK-A-DOODLE came in tenth place, flattened by STRAIGHT TALK, THUNDERHEART, WAYNE’S WORLD in its eighth week, and many others. It flopped so hard Bluth’s studio went into liquidation six months later. They managed to keep going, but got similar responses to THUMBELINA (1994), A TROLL IN CENTRAL PARK (1994) and THE PEBBLE IN THE PENGUIN (1995).
Bluth finally turned his luck around in 1997 with ANASTASIA. I do not believe it’s a good movie, but with the co-direction of Gary Goldman, the budget and oversight of 20th Century Fox (who built a brand new studio for it), and a more disciplined attempt to do something like what modern Disney was doing, it was much more palatable and became a hit. His only movies since then have been BARTOK THE MAGNIFICENT (DTV spin-off about one of the more interesting figures in Russian history, Rasputin’s talking bat pal) and the PG-13 sci-fi movie TITAN A.E. (another one I covered in the Summer Flings series). Also in 2004 he did a Scissor Sisters video
(mostly live action and not his best animation, but pretty cool). Since then his biggest known project has been trying to make a movie based on his classic animated-clips-played-from-a-laser-disc video game Dragon’s Lair, even doing some crowdfunding for it. In 2009 he was credited as director of a Saudi Arabian short film that he said he didn’t have much to do with, and in 2019 he apparently animated something for a live action short called Circus Sam.
Anyway, I don’t know who owns ROCK-A-DOODLE these days, but I would like to end this review series with the following five word proposal: creepy photorealistic C.G. ROCK-A-DOODLE remake. Thank you.