The Animated Films of Don Bluth|
by John Cawley
ROCK-A-DOODLE is currently set to be released the Spring of 1992, through Samuel Goldwyn. It proved to be Don's rockiest period of production. As this book goes to press, the film is now completed and work is finishing on Don's next feature entitled A TROLL IN CENTRAL PARK and the newly begun THUMBELINA.
The following synopsis is from a final cut of the film. The storyline may be altered when the film is finally released.
Against the backdrop of outer space, Patou the dog narrates the story of how the sun rises on Earth. The camera swoops down to the planet to a farm, where lives the legendary rooster, Chanticleer. This handsome rooster who charms the barnyard animals with his singing voice which has the power to raise the sun.
One evening, Chanticleer is attacked by a cock sent by the Grand Duke. The Duke is a giant Great Owl who rules the night and doesn't want the sun to come out. Chanticleer wins the fight, but the sun has risen above the horizon without his crow. The animals laugh at Chanticleer. Embarrassed, he leaves the farm. The sun, noting that Chanticleer hasn't crowed, drops back below the horizon. With the sun gone, the rains come and threaten to flood the world.
The scene switches to live-action, as it is revealed this is only a bedtime story being read by a mother to her son, Edmund. This is during a terrible thunderstorm, and a flood-swollen river breaks through the farm's levee. Edmund's father and two brothers hurry outside to rescue the farm animals, but Edmund is convinced that only Chanticleer can stop the rain and save the farm. He calls out Chanticleer's name, But the Grand Duke is aware of Edmund's intentions. The giant owl enters the real world, Edmund's bedroom to stop the boy. His breath, which can transform creatures into anything, changes the boy into something edible: an animated kitten. The Grand Duke's breath also changes Edmund's surroundings into an animated environment. Luckily, Patou, the hound dog, jumps into the bedroom and bites the owl's ankle. This gives Edmund time to grab a flashlight and repel the owl with its light, as owls are sensitive to light.
As Edmund tries to adjust to his cat's body, he befriends Patou, a hound dog who can't tie shoelaces; Peepers, a brainy mouse; and Snipes, a perpetually-hungry magpie. The floodwaters surge through the bedroom, and the friends float outside in an open trunk. They leave behind Stewey Pig in charge of the barnyard animals, as the group head for the city to find Chanticleer.
To stop them, the Grand Duke sends his nephew Hutch, a clumsy owl with only one thought in his brain, and usually one word on his tongue: annihilation. As the floodwaters rise, the Duke and his feathered flock prepare to dine on Stewey Pig and the other farm animals as soon as the batteries in the farm animals' flashlight wear out.
Meanwhile, in the city, Edmund and his friends learn that Chanticleer has become The King: a superstar rock singer with the manner and fame of Elvis Presley. His manager, a wily fox named Pinky, isolates "The King" from the public between performances, and keeps him occupied with an attractive stage girl pheasant named Goldie, who happens to be jealous of the rooster.
The Grand Duke informs his crony, Pinky, of the farm animals' attempt to contact Chanticleer. Pinky arranges for tighter security with his frog bouncers to enforce this edict: At the King's next performance, no dogs, cats, magpies and mice will be allowed. Edmund and the others disguise themselves and manage to get in. There, they toss a paper airplane onto the stage but it is intercepted by Goldie.
Newspaper headlines warn of worldwide flooding. Goldie entertains the King at his skyscraper estate, relaxing with him on a swing and giving him milk. Patou, as narrator, informs the audience that she's falling in love with him. Watching them from an adjacent building, Edmund's team plot a new strategy. Edmund realizes the best way to reach Chanticleer is to sway Goldie to their side.
They arrive at the movie lot where the King is filming a movie for Pinky. Edmund visits Goldie in her dressing room, but she screams and drives him out. The frog bouncers catch the intruders and seal them in a mobile home, hanging them from a ceiling net. Their rough treatment disturbs Goldie, who has second thoughts about helping them.
She tells Chanticleer that they want him back on the farm. Pinky overhears this and confines the lovers to the studio until they finish the picture. Goldie and Chanticleer start up a prop motorcycle and ride to the mobile home to rescue his farm friends. Having already freed themselves, Patou accidentally knocks out the rooster with a frying pan. Edmund and Peepers hop aboard a car and drive off with the mobile home, with Pinky and the frog bouncers in close pursuit. After a hectic chase, the heroes commandeer Pinky's helicopter and head for the farm.
Enroute to the farm, Hutch attacks our heroes which disables the helicopter. It crash lands in the flooded area of the farm, but all survive and swim to high ground. They urge Chanticleer to crow, but he's lost his confidence to do it. Then the Grand Duke attacks. The owl grows to giant-size and pummels Chanticleer into the ground with a magic mallet. Edmund tries to stop him, but the owl flings the cat aside. Thinking Edmund is dead, Patou and the animals chant for Chanticleer to crow. Just as all seems lost, the rooster musters the power to crow. The crow wipes out the Duke in a whirlwind, blows away the storm and restores the sun to its glory. The Duke is reduced to a tiny owl and beset upon by, his now larger nephew, Hutch. Patou, as narrator, says the owls never bother them again.
The animals pay homage to the fallen Edmund. Then, a heavenly light shines upon the cat, who changes back to his human self, much to the animals' amazement.
Edmund wakes up in the real world to find the rains have stopped and the farm is saved. He rubs the magic storybook of Chanticleer and rejoins the rooster and his friends in a live action/animated song-and-dance finale.
BEHIND THE FILM
Like DOGS, ROCK-A-DOODLE's history is fairly long for a studio as young as Sullivan Bluth. As NIMH was being completed, Don began preparing for his next features. One already heavily in production was EAST OF THE SUN, WEST OF THE MOON. Another announced project was CHANTICLEER, based on a story in The Canterbury Tales. He officially announced beginning of the pre-production in late 1982 while touring Europe promoting NIMH.
During the gaming period, various properties were again being looked at. These included THE LITTLE BLUE WHALE, a story about a whale (to be scripted by Robert Towne), which was on- again, off-again several times. There was a version of The Beauty and the Beast tale which was being considered up to the announcement by the Disney Studio to make a version. Another was an animated version of Chanticleer, the fable of a rooster who thinks he makes the sun rise. The original tale has been told many times with both happy and dark endings.
Work on ROCK began in 1989 while DOGS was finishing up. Don began boarding from a script by David Weiss. Concept art and character designs began to take shape as Don worked with his Irish crew storyboarding the film.
In a 1990 magazine article, Don described the plot. "ROCK-A-DOODLE is a fantasy, something that we just made up. It's about a character named Chanticleer who thinks that when he crows the sun comes up. The truth is, it does; until one day into the farm yard comes another rooster who fights with Chanticleer and keeps him so busy that the sun, who has a habit of coming up every morning at that time, peeks its little head over the hill. Well, Chanticleer has not crowed and when he sees that the sun has come up without him, he's devastated. All the farm yard animals ridicule and laugh at him, so he walks away and says 'I'm nobody.' The sun becomes very upset after that and hides behind the clouds never to come out again. Meanwhile, the rooster goes away to the city and becomes a rock star, very reminiscent of Elvis Presley. The farm yard animals realize they're in trouble because the rains have come, the world's flooding, and there's no more sunshine. So they go to the city and try to bring Chanticleer home to crow."
A live action director was hired to direct all the live action sequences, but left in mid film. Don took over and completed the directing chores, himself, much like Richard Williams did with the live action sequences in the feature RAGGEDY ANN AND ANDY.
T. J. Kuenster, who'd written some music in ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN, had previously worked for years with Glenn Campbell. Kuenster suggested Campbell for the role of the rooster, who hides his shame by becoming a rock and roll star. Campbell stated "I read the script of ROCK-A-DOODLE many times and liked it very much."
There are other first time voices for a Bluth production. Former band leader, TV and radio comic and Disney veteran Phil Harris (THE JUNGLE BOOK, THE ARISTOCATS, ROBIN HOOD) is Patou, the dog. TV (THE HOGAN FAMILY) and stage star Sandy Duncan (Vixey in Disney's THE FOX AND THE HOUND) voices Peepers, the mouse. Eddie Deezan (tested, but not used, for Dexter in SPACE ACE) plays Snipes. Toby Scott Ganger is Edmund in the live action and the voice of the kitten in animation. Ellen Greene voices Goldie and Sorrel Brooke (THE DUKES OF HAZZARD's Boss Hogg) plays Pinky.
Returning Bluth voices include Christopher Plummer (Henri in AN AMERICAN TAIL) as the Grand Duke. Charles Nelson Reilly (ALL DOGS' Killer) is Hutch, the Grand Duke's nephew. Will Ryan (TAIL's Digit and LAND's Petrie) voices Stewey Pig.
Though the songs are by Kuenster and Campbell, the film's score has been written by Robert Folk. Folk's credits include SAVAGE HARVEST, MY WICKED STEPMOTHER, TREMORS and THE NEVER ENDING STORY II. He conducted the recording sessions in Dublin using the Irish Film Orchestra.
After the critical bashing of DOGS, Don and his crew re- looked at the film. The studio and Goldcrest decided if they were going to be more commercial, they were going to have to pay more attention to the public. Test screenings of very rough footage began being held.
These tests began to re-shape the film. Most of the original double entendre dialogue between Chanticleer and Goldie was removed. The design of Goldie was also made less enticingly (female) shapely. (Her original version is seen in the trailer for ROCK-A-DOODLE found on the beginning of ALL DOGS videotapes.) An attempt was made to make a film that would be free of any scenes "too intense" or "too adult" for a very general audience.
A notice in the June 1990 issue of the studio newsletter stated the cuts were "to create appeal to the broadest spectrum of audience." The article went on to state "The repairs involve some rerecording and an additional contribution by Phil Harris, the voice of Patou. We have restructured the continuity which allows the audience to stay focused on Edmund and the adventure he's undertaking. Chanticleer's role as 'The King' works very well now without confusing the audience as to who is the hero (adults seem to be attracted to Chanticleer and children to Edmund). Small snippets were made here and there which have polished the continuity and everyone feels the film has been greatly enhanced."
As production continued, so did the tests. The final cut of the film could be very different from any of the screened or test prints for this reason.
How audiences will react to ROCK's "controlled" production is unclear. Whatever the outcome, it will not be what Don would have originally wanted. His desire to make animated features with more bite and dread than normal will continue to be held back in order to make a more "G" rated fare.
Many who have seen the film in its current state claim it is the best looking feature to come from Bluth and his crew. They also state it is highly entertaining.
In the middle of production, Sullivan Bluth received a set- back when Goldcrest was purchased by another company. At first, the new owners maintained they would continue their work with Sullivan Bluth. However, after the disappointing release of DOGS, the new owners decided to get out of the animation business after ROCK-A-DOODLE. Luckily, Sullivan Bluth almost immediately found new backers via a European video firm willing to bet on the possible profits from a well received animated feature. The new deal was announced for three features.
However problems with Goldcrest were just beginning. In March of 1991, Goldcrest petitioned the Irish courts to liquidify Sullivan Bluth. Their complaint was based on a loan of nearly $300,000 they had made to the studio. Goldcrest, a 5% shareholder in the studio, claimed that the animation studio was unable to repay them and other creditors. The courts gave Sullivan Bluth a period of time to prove they could make the necessary payments.
In April, the day it was to be decided in court, Goldcrest suddenly dropped the petition. Neither Goldcrest nor Sullivan Bluth discussed any terms in public. Sullivan Bluth did issue a statement which read "The petition presented by Goldcrest Films and Television to the High Court for the winding up of Sullivan Bluth Studios has been withdrawn. The issue has been resolved amicably." (May, 1991 found Goldcrest announcing that they would be backing and distributing three animated features from Rich Entertainment, a small animation house known mostly for its religious animated videos.)
A THEATRICAL RELEASE
By late 1990, it was being announced that ROCK-A-DOODLE would receive a release in the Spring of 1991 from MGM-Pathe. It was also stated that MGM-Pathe was putting money into Don's next production, THUMBELINA. The distributor was plagued with financial difficulties and finally severed itself from both films.
For awhile, it appeared as if the feature might go directly to the home video market. Word of Sullivan Bluth's financial difficulties with Goldcrest kept many distributors away fearing that the film might be tied up in a custody fight. Finally, in May of 1991 The Samuel Goldwyn Company acquired U.S. rights in a joint venture with HBO Video. They announced a Spring 1992 release for the film.
The Easter 1992 release would be backed with a $15 million print and ad camgaign along with a number of promotional tie-ins still being negotiated. Stated Goldwyn vice president Steven Rothenberg, "This will be out biggest push to date, because we think this will be a huge picture." In fact, Goldwyn stated they thought the film would beat their highest grossing film, 1985's THE CARE BEAR MOVIES (which grossed over $25 million). One company executive predicted ROCK-A-DOODLE could go over $40 million.
Initially, it had a totally clear field for the release. Unfortunately, Twentieth Century Fox's FERNGULLY: THE LAST RAINFOREST, originally scheduled for a Fall 1991 release, was moved to Spring of 1992. Once again Sullivan Bluth's product will go head to head with a major U.S. release.
HBO Video, so pleased with the final product, has already announced that ROCK-A-DOODLE will be the company's sell-through promotion for Christmas of 1992. The video company plans an extensive marketing program for the release which they feel could sell over three million units.
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text and format © John Cawley