Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
1991, 77 min., Color
Olive Films
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

Don Bluth forever will be known as a talented artist who left Disney to start an animation company that produced The Secret of NIMH, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and The Land Before Time in the ‘80s under his direction. But the studio’s titles in the first half of the ‘90s struggled to connect with viewers, and Rock-a-Doodle (1991), Thumbelina (1994), A Troll in Central Park (1994), and The Pebble and the Penguin (1994) all had disappointing box-office returns.

The problem with Rock-a-Doodle, as is so often the case with non-Disney animated features, is the concept itself—and that includes a live-action “frame” that seems gratuitous, even clunky. Bluth had been the animation supervisor on Disney’s Pete’s Dragon and obviously wanted to showcase his talents. But The Princess Bride-style frame about a boy reading a book doesn’t work because it’s introduced a little too late in the film and the whole parallel of the boy’s parents fighting a flood while he’s transformed into a cat who tries to bring a rooster back from the city to “save” the farm (and the parents’ farm) seems strained. Plus, the live-action simply doesn’t hold up as well as the animation.

As for the rest of the premise, it certainly had promise, as a rollicking opening sequence and song prove. The rooster Chanticleer (Glen Campbell) is the strutting king of the barnyard whose singing wakes up the sun every day. That story and opening musical number have all the charm that fables usually provide, and had Bluth stayed with a simpler fabulistic fabric he might have had something. Instead, he offers a villain whose motives and actions are just a little fuzzy.

We’re supposed to believe that the nocturnal owls, led by the villainous Grand Duke of Owls (Christopher Plummer), want perpetual darkness, so the Grand Duke sends a henchman to attack Chanticleer in order to put him out of commission for a day and discredit him. When the barnyard sees the sun come up despite the lack of a song, they start ridiculing Chanticleer and calling him a fake. As a result, the king of the barnyard leaves the barnyard for the big city, where he becomes the King—an obvious, clever and fun animated version of Elvis Presley. After Chanticleer leaves, the Grand Duke puts a spell over the farmyard to make it always dark. But here’s the thing: If he had that kind of power, why couldn’t he just do that with Chanticleer present, since Chanticleer only thinks he has the power of light?

That’s the first head-scratcher. The second comes later in the film when we see that Chanticleer has achieved Elvis-like stardom in the city but is still willing to return to the barnyard that bit him on the ego, as if nothing had happened. How many people do you know of who would go back to a simple life after becoming a star?

Both Chanticleer and the Grand Duke are interesting characters, in part because of the way they’re drawn and animated, and in part because the voice talents really bring them to life. There’s some fine animation here, and some good music, but also plenty of wasted opportunities. Voice talents like Sandy Duncan, Phil Harris, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Sorrell Booke seem wasted on minor characters that aren’t given enough fun lines or the space to say them. Instead, that simple fable-style story that, without a sound premise, devolves into breakneck action of the Saturday morning cartoon variety.

It would have made more sense to have Chanticleer be an integral part of the farm community but be lured away to the Big City by an evil owl with an agenda of his own. And that agenda could have been to take over the barnyard. Yes we’ve seen that before, but so have we seen the whole light vs. perpetual darkness thing, and the former would have been more compatible with the simple nature of the fable.

I will say this, though. Rock-a-Doodle is different, and jaded youngsters looking for something animated that’s not a familiar franchise title (with a familiar franchise look) from Disney, Fox, Warner Bros. Animation, or Dreamworks may enjoy the fresh aspects of Rock-a-Doodle: like the Presley allusions, the character of the Grand Duke (who seems a perversion of Disney’s wise old and friendly owls, and therefore a satirical statement), or some of the action sequences that, while not breaking new animation ground, feel visually fresh. There are enough positives, in other words, to make you glad that Olive Films rescued Chanticleer from obscurity—but enough positives to ultimately make you wish that the main concept wasn’t so suspect.