"I'll just get my gear."

Rock-a-doodle

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.

Every one one of these fuckers sits there and watches him abandon his life and home rather than jog up and say “hey, sorry Chanticleer, that was mean.”

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”:

Tweedle-le-dee (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.
No batteries!

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.

This entry was posted on Monday, March 8th, 2021 at 10:14 am and is filed under Cartoons and Shit, Musical, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

19 Responses to “Rock-a-doodle”

  1. I think “The Pebble In The Penguin” might have been the porn parody ;)

  2. Jeffrey Roberie

    March 8th, 2021 at 11:03 am

    I’m giving up commenting here and just in general on the Internet. So naturally, Vern decided to f— with me by posting cartoon reviews right when I made that decision. But I will make an exception by relaying the legendary behind-the-scenes story of this one that may or may not be true but entertaining and would explain things none-the-less:

    Bluth’s animators were not sure it ROCK-A-DOODLE was working, so he held a screening of the work-in-progress, after the screening he collected the comment cards from them that he handed out earlier, went to the front, and ripped all the comment cards in front of them and told them to get back to work.

  3. This review is one of the funniest things I have ever read. It always makes me laugh (in a way of appreciation) to think of some near-genius animator trying to imbue a very friendly on-model cartoon rooster with the country-tough friendliness and stoic pizzaz of Glen Campbell, or the logic of a less-sweaty-and-bug-eyed Rodney dog or whatever.

    Glen Campbell was a brilliant guitar player, having done a breadth of session work before getting famous. I haven’t seen this one in ages. Are there parts were Rock-A-Doodle’s hands shred on the cartoon guitar with stressfully-accurate looking precision? Glen Campbell noticing the inaccuracy of Chanticleer’s fretting is also very funny, either way it is good.

    The less interference in the drawing of shiny eyes and the realization of weird ideas the better. I also am very appreciative of media kids that was memorably dream-like, for instance the sorts of kids who didn’t go to arcades much and were a few years younger than the prime years of ripoff half-dollar animated “videogames”. For this, I am thankful for Bluth’s weird movies and laserdisc moneytakers.

    I hope Eddie Deezen got to meet Glen Campbell, there’s a documentary I would loved to have seen.

    Even though it is about Rock A. Doodle and friends, thanks to Vern for a review that has me feeling very positive about cartooning and jokes.

  4. Here’s a joke for any Glen Campbell fans out there, how about a movie about a songwriting duck or otter or gull called JIMMY WEBB, like the webb is his webbed feet.

  5. Man, children’s entertainment turned to shit, like, the second the 80s ended, didn’t it? I turned 13 in 1990, so I’m assuming I looked around at the available options and said, “Well, I guess I better just grow up then.”

  6. Inspector Hammer Boudreaux

    March 8th, 2021 at 12:19 pm

    That’s a nice price on a copy of “Cockfighter” up there. It’s Charles Willeford’s love letter to the American countryside and traditional values. Or so I’ve been told.

  7. What the hell happened to Don Bluth? I have a toddler, so I’ve taken the opportunity to rewatch a lot of animated Disney movies, and it’s crazy just how easily Don Bluth outdid them in the 80s. There are some solid Disney films in that decade, but none are as good as what Bluth, Inc. was producing.

    Not too long ago, I watched Oliver and Company, and it might be the worst animated Disney cartoon. But even more embarrassing, the whole thing feels like a Don Bluth knockoff. It’s just sad.

    And then the 90s hit. And from then on out, Bluth just couldn’t do anything right. How the hell does that happen?

  8. Bluth is the squeaky-clean traditionalist flipside to Bakshi’s raunchy radicalism; both make movies that have lots of good elements but don’t quite come together as a whole. And that’s on their good days.

  9. I actually prefer FIEVEL GOES WEST to the first film, it’s a tight, fun film with a lot of Chuck Jones-esque gags and Jimmy Stewart’s final performance to boot.

    Also I would just like to say that when I saw the Peniscopter up there my initial thought was that it looked like a caterpillar, as I am a being of pure goodness and light.

    (I have actually seen this film, once about ten years ago and I think maybe once when I was about 6, but I remember nothing).

  10. I noticed your sudden retreat from the internet, Geoffrey. Good to see that you are okay.

    Never saw that movie, but I remember seeing commercials as a kid. Don Bluth is one of those weird cases, where someone is at the same time overrated, yet underrated. He should get WAY more respect for delivinering independent animation in surprisingly high quality, without shying away from dark topics and gruesome moments…but then at the same time, the only one of his movies that I really like is ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN, but I haven’t revisited that one in an awfully long time and have no idea how it holds up.

  11. I always preferred CHICKEN RUN to its prequel. The latter ROCK-A-DOODLE combined with THE GREAT ESCAPE was pulled off very well. The king of 90s animation is Bill Plympton, of course, but I’m sad about how things ended up for both Bakshi and Bluth.

    I Married a Strange Person! - Would You Love Me If (Movie Version)

    From the Bill Plympton's film I Married a Strange Person!歌詞: Would you love me if I forgot your birthday and gave your shoes away, refused to shave?    ...

  12. Yeah, stay well Geoffery. Wanting to (mostly) jack out of cyberspace is something I’ve wrestled with quite a bit in the last four months or so. It should be easy but somehow it isn’t. I stopped visiting a forum I’d been a regular on for 12 years because I realised I wasn’t really enjoying it any more (only cracked the once since, mostly reaffirmed the validity of my decision). Tried Twitter in its place for a while, tried to keep it as light and positive as possible, realised this was futile, and now log into it every fortnight of so. These have definitely been good decisions, but I still end up coming across too much crap that wastes my time and misdirects my energy.

    I do think ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN is one of the better Bluth joints. It still only just about transcends his innate B-minus-ness, but not because of any gaping flaws or patches of tedium. It works.

  13. Sometimes I like to peruse Vern’s twitter feed to see what addlepated nonsense is driving him up a wall today. It reminds me of how much happier I am on a day-to-day basis since I stopped engaging in The Conversation except in very limited circles, such as this fine websight. Like, who cares what a bunch of dipshits think about the Snyder Cut or WANDAVISION or really any goddamn thing, really? People are gonna think what they think, and they’re gonna spew out their dumb thoughts like it’s their divine right. What’s that got to do with me? Unless the dumb shit they think is going to make them vote Republican, their wrongness doesn’t affect me in the slightest. It doesn’t change the movie/TV show/actor/director/franchise/etc they’re wrong about. It doesn’t change my relationship to said movie/TV show/actor/director/franchise/etc. It’s just hot air from an asshole. Also known as a fart. Best to avoid entirely, in my opinion, but if you do encounter one, farting back at it only makes the stench twice as bad.

  14. Sorry to see you go, Geoffreyjar. I understand, and you should definitely do what you gotta do to to save your sanity (I have wrestled myself free from Twitter –with enough difficulty to really drive home how badly I needed to– and find my life immeasurably improved by it) but you’ll be missed. I hope, somewhat selfishly, that you still lurk around and check in on us occasionally.

    As for ROCK-A-DOODLE, it definitely feels like a logical extension of the utter insanity that is ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN, but I’m afraid the lack of resources and microscopic run-time don’t allow it to hit the same surreal flights of fancy that ALL DOGS does, which just makes it feel scattered, rather than rewardingly digressive. And yes, that kid’s voice is absolutely unacceptable.

  15. That speech impediment seemed very common in kids movies of my youth. Not only is it annoying but isn’t it actually exploiting something the kid is probably going to go to speech therapy to fix it he doesn’t outgrow it?

    Had no idea there was live-action in this. Sounds like a Pagemaster situation, which I also barely remember.

  16. The problem with us – or should I say one of the problems – is that we can’t not comment when we see something that’s objectively wrong. And there are a lot of that going on in this fantasy world where everyone and his grandma demands to be heard. Or is it just me?

  17. Honestly, I learned a while ago to pick my battles on the internet. I have no obligation to discuss anything with random strangers. Even when they spout some serious bullshit, I still analyze first if it’s worth it to get into the crossfire, because a) everybody is ignoring them already anyway or b) much smarter, eloquent and more patient people are already on it.

    Yes, sometimes I still get dragged into “Okay, now I have to tell them my opinion” situations, but even here I usually say what I want to say and don’t reply to or even read anything that comes after.

    That’s the beauty of the cyberspace. Got a dumbass in your timeline? Block or mute them. You can’t do that in the real world with your asshole neighbour, your racist uncle or simply the Nazi on the bus, who unfortunately has to get out at the same stop as you and now tells you for the full 2 hour ride how the Jews are controlling the weather.

  18. I can hold my cybertounge no problem, but it’s ignoring or brushing it off appropriately that I struggle.

    And I wish I could say it was only important stuff that gets under my skin, but it really, really isn’t.

    I’m sure these are the kind of soul-searching discussions Mr Bluth intended ROCK-A-DOODLE to provoke.

  19. Chanticleer sang, so that we can discuss internet culture.

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