Mutant Popcorn #21

Nick Lowe

All Dogs Go to Heaven

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be dishing out each and every delicious portion.

The serving below – All Dogs Go to Heaven, Society – appeared first in Interzone #35 (May 1990).

Six men and a woman sit round a conference table in polarised sepia sunshine. All have bad ties, young families, and the word ‘creative’ in their job titles. It’s the nineties.

‘Thank you, Jeff. Well, the Concepts team spotlights non-threatening paranormal encounters as the season’s runaway. We have strong response on relationship pictures featuring deceased persons in positive family situations. Recommendation is we advance this formulation and nuke this one in the microwave for fifteen to twenty to see if it pings.’

‘Thank you, Warren. I feel that the nineties are going to be a more caring, relationship-centred decade, and that the market will want to feel that the other side is a place where family and environmental values can be positively sustained. I feel we should bear that in mind in our deliberations at this time.’

‘Thank you, Steve. Well, let’s review. We have paranormal affirmation of the father relationship in Field of Dreams and Ghost Dad, posthumous romance in Always and a bunch of others, a cop with a ghost partner in Heart Condition … How about, um, Poltergeist Baby? – say a warming comedy about a single lady lawyer caring and coping with an invisible tyke who keeps knocking furniture about and oozing green ectoplasm.’

‘Too realistic, Shawna. But what about a bunch of lovable spooks stranded on the ocean floor with a nameless primordial – ‘

‘Now, Garry, I know you’ve been under a lot of pressure lately. Although, maybe a deceased father who trades places with his son – or, hey, a platoon of MIA vets who return from the hereafter to help America come to terms with the memory of Nam…’

‘Excuse me, Marty. I think I may have the solution here. What about a rough but lovable German shepherd who comes back from the next world to help his human partner in the apprehension of a criminal mastermind?’

‘I’m so sorry, Michael. It’s been done. It was called All Dogs Go to Heaven.’

Actually, though, All Dogs Go to Heaven is anything but formular stuff, even if its chain of creation suggests otherwise (directed by Don Bluth, from a screenplay by David N. Weiss, from a story by ten different people, from a title by Don Bluth). But this simply reflects the structure of the strange world of Sullivan Bluth Ireland, the Dublin animation studio set up by Disney renegade Bluth to revive the golden age of lush, handcrafted feature animation progressively abandoned by Disney in the doldrum seventies.

Ten years ago, remember, nobody would have bet a gumwad on a revival of the animated feature. The consensus was that the Disney achievement was historically irreproducible: that lavish hand animation had only been economic in an age of pre-union starvation labour rates, and that even Disney’s commercial success depended on an extraordinary programme of secondary merchandising and long-term returns from backlist re-releases. Besides, Disney had Walt: an inspirational genius conveniently jobsharing with a tyrannical megalomaniac. The glum product from Robin Hood to The Black Cauldron seemed to demonstrate the combination was both indispensable and unique.

And yet, of course, Disney in 1990 has turned around. The new back-to-roots Disney of the Katzenberg era has set out unashamedly to rebuild its traditional base in family pictures, both toon and live (as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids). And at the centre is a production line of animated features aiming to deliver a new full-length feature every Christmas, all the while keeping up the traditional summer reissues and playing the back catalogue deftly on the video market. Clever farming-out of the more mindless and repetitive cel labour to the Far East has helped peg animation costs at a credible level, and the films themselves have been high-performance, if resolutely retro and dull, revamps of traditional themes: animal classics in 88’s Oliver and Company, romantic fairytale in 89’s The Little Mermaid.

And then, in the other corner, we have Bluth. In contrast to the committee conservatism of current Disney policy, Don Bluth, terrifyingly, is a Walt: a hard man with unsafe ideas and both hands locked in a deathgrip on the controls. It once looked like the plughole for Bluth after 82’s The Secret of Nimh, the technically lavish debut doomed by an erratic script and unpronounceable title. But a two-picture deal with Spielberg’s Amblin brought hits with An American Tail and The Land before Time: both astutely conceived projects, if mawkishly handled, that challenged Disney directly with classier ideas, lusher production values, and latterly a prolific and flexible independent studio base in scam-happy Eire. And they too, in the States at least, open at Christmas.

Well, this Christmas Disney got the laugh. Last round, Bluth’s more contemporary tot-credible dinosaurs nipped seriously at the heels of Disney’s cat’n’dog Dickens; this time the far better but precariously offwall Dogs, Bluth’s first feature with new partners Goldcrest, was pummelled by the unexpectedly strong Little Mermaid (which doesn’t get here till the autumn). This is a great shame, and I hope this nation’s youth have better sense, because the difference between All Dogs and, say, Oliver and Company is the difference between, well, Oliver! with fluffy kittens and the Alsatian remake of A Matter of Life and Death. We have Burt Reynolds voicing Charlie, the rakish proprietor of a doggie speakeasy in thirties New Orleans, who gets packed off to doggie heaven (‘All dogs go to heaven, because dogs are naturally kind and loyal’) by his treacherous pit bull partner. Cheating the powers, Charlie escapes to take revenge; but gets involved with a winsome human orphan, and to his own consternation finds his hardbitten nature beginning to mend. But, alas! Charlie’s misconduct above has condemned him next time he dies to canine hell. So will Charlie accept eternal damnation to save the human he loves? or will the terrestrial underworld swallow him first?

What makes this weirder is that much of the time Dogs carries on like a normal family picture. The Depression setting allows direct pastiche of the classical Disney style, and the mix of doggy naturalism and preposterous anthropomorphism is superficially familiar and cosy. But the casual extension of the plot to death and beyond is a jolting departure from 101 Dalmatians, quite apart from the uneasy savagery of the gangster theme. The vision of hell had to be cut for certification, and the ending leaves children screaming as the lights come up. Perhaps that alone explains the boxoffice walkover of The Little Mermaid, which adulterates Anderson’s story with a happy ending. But much of All Dogs Go to Heaven is classic stuff, for all the (by now expected) lapses of script and technical overreaches. The best surprise, remarkably, is the simpering orphan, who upstages all the animals through some plain but surprisingly authentic observation of how children actually move. The other humans are desultory, and a lot of the time the matching of movement to backgrounds is uneven. But the visual texture is exquisite, the sewer-level New Orleans constantly inspired, and the strange adult themes of death and redemption darkly at home. It’s hard to imagine anything like this from Disney. Give the kids an Easter treat and scar them for life.

Out on quite a different limb is the year’s best junk film so far, Empire graduate Brian Yuzna’s slaphappy teen paranoia flick Society. A conceptually downmarket They Live, this tongue-thru-cheek attempt to give new meaning to the alienation of youth has moments of utter brilliance, intervals of witless crap, and large stretches that indistinguishably merge the two. For this is the tale of 17-year-old Bill, school basketball champ and all-round hi-flier, who comes to suspect that Society is conspiring against his success. His uppercrust family seem remote, his school rivals contemptuous and exclusive, and even his shrink seems part of the league against him. Bill’s doubts about society people find a focus when his best mate produces a secret tape of what really went on at Bill’s sister’s coming-out party. Strange things start to happen: the tape disappears, the friend dies (or does he?) in a mysterious accident, and when Bill gets to shag the school goddess her mom turns out to be this weird person… Is Bill crazy? is the world crazy? is someone out to drive him crazy? Are things what they seem to be, or is society really just a mask for something horrible beyond conceiving, an amorphous blight of nethermost confusion that bubbles and blasphemes at the centre of all being? Well, given the prominence of the credit for ‘Surrealistic Makeup Effects’ (by the inexpensively virtuosic Screaming Mad George), I’ll leave you to work on that one. Remember to scratch one box only.

It needs to be said Society is a firmly youth-oriented movie – even the screenwriters are called Woody and Ricky – and as such favours radically non-Aristotelian modes of plotting. Good scenes and ad hoc twists weigh more than logic or continuity, so you can have fun over your pizza afterwards totting up loose ends unresolved or unexplained by the wild finale. It doesn’t matter much at the time, but before the credits are half done you’re already thinking Wait a minute… On the plus side, though, the main idea is great, and so long as you don’t know what’s going on a lot of the set pieces are surprisingly effective. In particular, the score and many of the images are terrific: the guy who arranged the main theme (strange electronic minors and discords under a jolly chorus of the Eton Boating Song) is possibly a genius. The main minus is the ending, which overdoes expectations without actually satisfying them; but then, movies in general tend to have a rather naff idea of ultimate horror, as though you can make a concept more evil simply by splashing on more glycerine and latex. But there’s far worse offenders than Society, and if the suggestion is better than the presentation, at least it finds tasty place for an underused nightmare. In contrast to all the crop of ghost romances, which woo us with the unappetising thought that the next world is infiltrated by the same tacky values and relationships as this one, Society offers the much more intrinsically plausible suggestion that those values and relationships are just a veneer over an ancient, secret, maggoty heart of darkness. Suppose society really is just a veil … that beneath our loved ones’ surfaces lurks a nameless primordial evil, invincibly vast … the Great Old Ones … ph’nglui mgwl’nafh … the colour out of time … the three-lobed burning eye … it shall not find me … ia! Shub-Niggurath … (&c.)

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

Thank you for supporting IZ Digital and Interzone! Reader memberships and subscriptions help us to publish more stories, interviews, reviews, and art by creators from all over the planet.