A review requested by a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

And now we come to a question of some real urgency: what the living hell happened to Don Bluth at the start of the 1990s?

There's a simple answer to that, of course. After Bluth spent the '80s routinely handing his former employers at Disney their ass on a platter, artistically, financially, or both, that studio finally managed to turn things around in a huge way with The Little Mermaid in 1989. And while it was possible for a talented animator and animation director with Bluth's resources to overwhelm the weakened, reeling Disney that was only capable of putting out The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective, there was no chance in hell of Bluth being able to compete with the studio that had Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King in the hopper, and reasserted its dominance over the family film marketplace. Particularly not once he lost the backing of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas after 1988's The Land Before Time.

But that only explains Bluth's financial free-fall. The Little Mermaid might explain a lot of things, but it doesn't explain what what on God's green earth was up with Bluth's All Dogs Go to Heaven, a film which opened wide the very same day in November, 1989 as Disney's return to grace. That film was a grotesque menagerie of peculiar story concepts and horrifying visuals (I'd nonetheless rank it among the best animated features of the 1980s, you understand), sufficiently warped and off-putting in everything from concept to character design that I imagine it would have tanked even without Disney firing a mermaid-shaped bazooka in its face.

And even so, All Dogs feels like nothing but a dry run for Bluth's next feature, 1991's Rock-a-Doodle. The film was his attempt to finally make something of the adaptation of Edmond Rostand's satirical play Chanticleer that had been floating around at Disney for much of the '50s, '60s and early '70s, when Bluth was a young up-and-comer, always spiked for this reason or that (I believe, but I could easily be quite wrong, that some of the Chanticleer character designs found their way, heavily altered, into Disney's Robin Hood, where Bluth did his first major work with that company). Not much of the play is left, though enough to once-and-for-all kill off the project. Instead, the film's story (assembled by a six-man team, though this kind of writing-by-committee approach is less alarming in animation than live-action) is a perfectly straightforward variation on the standard Wizard of Oz, "kid has an incredibly vivid dream of a fantasy world" model. So maybe that's all it takes to justify what follows? Because it certainly does feel like a dream, albeit the kind you have when you're running a fever and have gotten all fucked-up on cough medicine.

Anyway, it opens, as all good animal fables do, in the vast reaches of outer space. Here, as we stare into the infinite void at the galaxy swirling in front of us, we hear the extremely tired and old voice of Phil Harris, three-time star of Disney movies some 20 years before Rock-a-Doodle came out, talking about... honestly, I don't remember precisely what Harris was talking about. I was too distracted by how audibly dispirited he sounded. The point being, in good time he brings us to the run rising over Earth, and tells us the story of how the sun is called into being through the power of Chanticleer the rooster (Glen Campbell), who wakes up the universe every morning on the country farm where he lives with all sorts of animals, including Patou the dog, who turns out to be the identity of our narrator. Patou's here to tell us the story of the time that the minions of the Grand Duke Owl (Christopher Plummer, whose self-satisfied villainy is the only actively good thing in the film) tricked Chanticleer into not crowing one morning, and discovering to his horror that the sun rose just fine without him.

And with that, Mom (Dee Wallace) has to put the book down, because a bad storm is about to wreak some real havoc on the house. We're in live-action now, and the animated intro was a bedtime story she was telling to Edmond (Toby Scott Ganger), but it has to be put on hold while she and Dad (Stan Ivar) batten down the hatches against the impending flooding. Unable to help, Edmond cries out to Chanticleer, but it's the Grand Duke who responds - Chanticleer, it turns out, fled the farm after that humiliation, and the rain hasn't stopped since.

The wide range of questions this raises already becomes troublesome, but I found myself clinging to "it's all Edmond's dream" like a life preserver throughout most of the movie. Boy, though, Edmond is a messed-up little kid if that's the case. Anyway, the Grand Duke is ready to eat him, but little boy sounds too tough, so he uses his magical breath to transform Edmond into an animated kitten (the effect of the animated world "bleeding" over Edmond's live-action bedroom is the only genuinely impressive visual effect in the movie). Luckily, most of the farmyard shows up to chase the owl off, including Patou, Snipes the magpie (Eddie Deezen), Peepers the mouse (Sandy Duncan), and several characters who'll only slightly matter. The main three and Edmond all hop on a raft to travel the flooded streets until they can make it to the city, where Chanticleer has a new career as a singer, so the animals can apologise to him for embarrassing him that fateful day, and ask him to come back to the farm, and the crow away the storm.

That's going to have to do for plot recap, because I'm worried about being sucked into the vortex of madness that is Rock-a-Doodle's script if I get to any of the really weird parts. Besides, I think there's already enough there to demonstrate the strange and unsettling form of logic that guides the story. It's not illogical, precisely. Everything flows together in a way that feels like some intelligence is guiding it. The feverish guided irrationality of a dream is at play, the mania of a half-asleep child spinning out some increasingly sprawling adventure, I don't even know what. This same kind of mish-mash of seemingly random events that feel nonetheless inevitable was the driving force behind All Dogs Go to Heaven, but there it all coalesced, somehow. That never happens in Rock-a-Doodle, a movie that feels like hacking through somebody's ghost-haunted id (and, in fact, one scene is literally that), like if Eraserhead was being remade as a talking animal comedy. I have very little reason to assume that this was in any way deliberate; the film feels like it was torn apart and reassembled many times, each time losing another plot point, more character details, until all that was left was the tattered rags of what used to be a story and is now a headlong plunge into insanity.

It's memorable, at least. The first and last time I saw Rock-a-Doodle was 25 years and a month prior to re-watching it for this review, and it was startling how much of the film remained fresh in my memory. Jokes, images, entire scenes. But not the impression of the whole, not till I was watching it. I mentioned, in reviewing All Dogs Go to Heaven, that my sole childhood memory of that film was a crushing physical feeling, somewhere between motion sickness and nausea. I had no such recollection of Rock-a-Doodle, only a collection of pieces that didn't feel like they could be assembled into a coherent whole (because they couldn't), but within minutes of starting the film, I had an incredible mental rush as the whole experience came back to me, and the weird spiraling feeling I felt then and felt again now, like I was spinning in circles and falling down a cliff.

I don't know what the hell it is with this period of Bluth that results in such visceral physical responses with me, but I'll say this about Rock-a-Doodle: it is disorientingly busy. Bluth's worst habit as a director, bar none, has always been his obsession with giving his characters lots and lots of tiny movements, constant shrugging and gesturing and shuddering and flailing. This comes to its natural peak in Rock-a-Doodle, where it feels like every character is being shot through with electricity all of the time. It's quite upsetting to watch, I find, like you can never find something solid to perch your attention on long enough to get your bearings. I think that's part of why this film is so much messier than Bluth's earlier films: the movie, visually, keeps slipping away, so you feel like you have to spend the whole time running to keep up with it, and the plot follows suit. This starts right at the beginning, with the complicated swoop into the farm as a hand-drawn three-dimensional space, a show-off gesture so fast and dizzying that it's not even possible to enjoy the artists' bravura. And it never stops; the live-action scenes are calm enough, but the great majority of the movie twitches constantly like the film itself has the DTs.

If we could somehow make it past that - I can't, personally, though I know there are people who regard this as a treasured childhood classic - we end up with some at least reasonable bits and pieces of animation. The teams assembled for Sullivan Bluth Studios, both the Irish wing under Bluth and the Los Angeles wing under John Pomeroy, were by no means untalented, even if the money available for this project was nothing close to what Disney was starting to throw at its films, and they were obliged to work within a limited, muddy color palette. Certainly, the character designs are memorable; memorably repulsive in some cases, like the sexy bird lady Goldie (voiced by Ellen Greene, who is unforgivable wasted), the most distasteful of the many birds with big boobs populating the film. But the troll-like owls make for impressive-looking villains, even if their motivations are lacking and the threat they represent seems generally pretty unclear. Chanticleer himself - supervised by Pomeroy - is an entirely satisfying animated creation, with no qualifications: plenty of note-perfect touches of Elvis Presley in his shape and movement.

And why a 1991 children's movie needs to hinge on Elvis Presley parody? I am sad that I cannot say. Best to chalk it up to more of the deranged nightmare logic that seems to govern every other aspect of the story.

The whole thing is grossly unsatisfying: too demented and inexplicable to function as a kids movie, or anything other than psychological horror, unreasonably eager to ruin all of the not-bad musical numbers (Campbell does a great version of Elvis without going for a straight impression) by chopping them apart and having Harris narrate over them. The characters are almost uniformly unlikable, if not because they keep shimmying and wiggling unpleasantly, than because of the sheer number of them who speak with some kind of quasi-adorable lisp; Ganger swallows his Rs so hard that it's frequently difficult to understand him at all. The film's tone is all over the map, between its lunges at horror, its outstandingly bad comedy, and its '50s rockabilly numbers, each of them feeling like a very different children's movie got thrown in a blender. The whole movie ends up feeling like a free-association hell. Still and all, it's too weird and awful to be forgettable, and while the film is excruciatingly bad, it is bad in some very interesting ways - something very few '90s films, can claim, not least of them Bluth's own miserable follow-ups. Rock-a-Doodle is a failure, all right, but a failure born from divine madness, not from mediocrity.