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At the Movies: “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” ″Harlem Nights″

November 17, 1989 GMT

Undated (AP) _ ″All Dogs Go to Heaven″

Charlie, a hoodlum mutt, is in the slammer. But not for long. His faithful pal, Itchy, is about to liberate him. And where’s the first place Charlie the escaped con-dog goes? Carface’s honky-tonk.

Carface, a cigar-chewing bulldog with a heart of nails, runs the type of gin joint where people, er, dogs drink cheap booze and fight at the drop of a bone. Carface is also the dog who framed Charlie.

And Carface clearly does not want Charlie around anymore, so Carface kills him with his car, and Charlie is quickly dispatched to ... heaven.

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Years ago, this easily could have been the set-up and plot for a James Cagney or John Garfield gangster flick. But would you believe an animated feature for children?

Don Bluth’s ″All Dogs Go to Heaven″ is the second major animated feature to come out this fall, going up against Walt Disney’s ″The Little Mermaid.″ But where Disney’s has very little to frighten or rattle a 5-year-old except a mean sea witch, Bluth’s effort dallies in the hereafter with haunting visions of hell and death.

Charlie decides he really doesn’t want to stay in heaven. It’s soooooo boring 3/8 He turns back his ″life watch″ and returns to Earth, with a warning from the Whippet Angel that he can’t come back.

Once back to his old haunts, he discovers that Carface has a little girl named Anne-Marie who can talk to animals - like race horses. With Anne-Marie as hostage, Carface never loses at the track 3/8 Charlie lures the little girl away with promises of helping her find a mommy and daddy. Anne-Marie is an orphan but we never know how or when her parents died or how she’s managed to make it on her own.

Charlie uses Anne-Marie, abusing her love and loyalty, but in the end, saves her life by giving up his own. His reward is heaven.

Along the way, we meet a lady dog, Charlie’s good friend, and her several puppies. There is a strong suggestion here that Charlie might be the dad. There’s also the overblown and ferocious King Gator, who leads a pack of cannibalistic rats in an underground kingdom.

King Gator is a questionable character, an almost racist concept. He has large lips and speaks in a distinctive black ghetto lingo (Ken Page does the voice). Though a hero of sorts in the story, he is nevertheless offensive and presents the kind of racial stereotype that should have been gone from movies - especially children’s movies - by now.

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Bluth, who led a dozen young artists out of Disney in 1979 and set up his own company, is a talented animator but he misses with his backgrounds and scenery. There is no three-dimensional richness, just painted flats that look washed-out and ordinary.

He’s good with action, but often it is too busy. In a scene at Carface’s club, there’s so much going on and so many dogs romping about that much of the scene is missed.

Burt Reynolds provides the voice for Charlie and Dom De Luise does Itchy. Other voices include Melba Moore, Whippet Angel; Charles Nelson Reilly, Killer; Judith Barsi, Anne-Marie; Loni Anderson, Flo; Candy Devine, Vera.

Serviceable but unmemorable tunes are provided by Charles Strouse and T.J. Kuenster. Ralph Burns did the score.

″All Dogs Go to Heaven″ will never be an animated classic, such as ″Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs″ or ″Bambi,″ but it is enjoyable entertainment for the entire family.

The United Artists release, in association with Goldcrest Films, is produced by Sullivan Bluth Studios Ireland Ltd. The rating is G, but small youngsters might be unnerved by some scenes and probably won’t understand much of the plot.

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″Harlem Nights″

The year is 1938. Orson Welles panics a gullible public with a broadcast about invading martians; ″September Song″ is a big hit song; bebop is about to be born; and the hottest afterhours joint in New York is Club Sugar Ray.

The club is run by a smooth operator named Sugar Ray (Richard Pryor) and his adopted son, Quick (Eddie Murphy). Unlike other uptown clubs of the time, which catered only to whites, Sugar Ray’s has a black and white clientele who gamble, drink, dance and buy prostitutes. It’s a profitable joint, and gangster Bugsy Calhoune (Michael Lerner) wants a piece - or all - of the action.

Murphy has set his ″Harlem Nights″ in the perfect era for interesting characters, situations, music and nuances. And his cast has some of the jewels of vaudeville, film and television. Why then, is the movie so unsatisfying?

The problem has to do with Murphy, who directed and wrote the Paramount Pictures release, and was also executive producer.

The direction is tentative in spots, the pacing is as slow as molasses, and the dialogue, when not peppered with obscenities, is filled with lengthy explanations about what action the characters may or may not wish to take. Murphy’s writing is about as snappy as a Sunday school lesson. The constant obscenities become a distraction and an eventual turnoff, and seem to be used when the writer and director can’t invent something more creative.

After a slow start, Murphy picks up speed for an explosive end.

Sugar Ray and Quick decide to rip off Calhoune and devise the sting of all stings.

Surprisingly, it’s not the two foul-mouthed bad boys of comedy who steal the show (Pryor and Murphy), but the women. Della Reese is fierce as Vera, the madam at the club. She’s not just heavy, she’s huge. And she literally swings her weight around as a cursing, tough, evil mama with a heart of gold.

And then there’s Sunshine (Lela Rochon), Vera’s No. 1 whore. Sunshine’s charms are so magnificent, one character says, she can make a man change his religion from Catholic to Baptist.

″Harlem Nights″ is the first major motion picture for Rochon, who has appeared in dozens of TV commercials and done guest stints on various sitcoms. She’s a natural beauty and a comedic joy who has some of Judy Holliday’s timing and Carole Lombard’s sauciness. Rochon is an actress to watch in the future.

Also appearing in ″Harlem Nights″ are Redd Foxx, Jasmine Guy, Stan Shaw and Arsenio Hall. Shaw is marvelous as the stuttering heavyweight champ, and Hall is appealing as the crying brother of a slain hood. Danny Aiello does a good job as the menacing and sleazy crooked cop, Phil Cantone.

″Harlem Nights″ is produced by Robert D. Wachs and Mark Lipsky, and is Rated R for language and adult situations.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G - General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

X - No one under 17 admitted. Some states may have higher age restrictions.