In 1984, Don, Gary and John Pomeroy had read The Book of the Dun Cow (1978). It is a fantasy novel by Walter Wangerin, Jr., loosely based upon the beast fable of Chanticleer and the Fox adapted from the story of “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It is a very dark story, but also very interesting and compelling.
We pursued Wangerin for a license to make a film based on his book. We couldn’t close a licensing contract with Mr. Wangerin, because he insisted on the film being exactly like the book. Wow! It would have been a 10-hour feature film.
Six years later, we elected to make a musical romp and called it Rock-A-Doodle.
Sullivan-Bluth Studios had a two-picture contract with Goldcrest Films & Television. All Dogs Go to Heaven was the first. Rock-A-Doodle was to be picture number two. We had already begun the voice recordings for the storyboarding and animation process. In early 1989 Sullivan-Bluth Ireland had established Don Bluth Animation, Inc. in Burbank, California, in order to accommodate 22 of the key animation staff members who wanted to return to the US. Sullivan-Bluth Ireland would send animation sequences to the California animation facility to secure an inventory of production. Within a year the Burbank studio grew to a crew of 88.
Swirling times at the least! Quick, get a concept and be ready with inventory for the animators before they finish rough animation for All Dogs. We were just three years into our Dublin animation studio having delivered The Land Before Time (in October of 1988) to Universal Pictures, and we were a little more than 80% complete with the production of All Dogs Go to Heaven in the spring of 1989. Just getting this Chanticleer film off the ground became a nightmare. Starting with the selection of Victor French, a director/actor (known for his work with Michael Landon on TV series Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven), to direct the live-action opening and closing sequences for Rock-A-Doodle. When Victor French arrived in Ireland that mid-April, we had a Brunch for him at the Dublin animation studio the next day as a formal meet and eat with those he would be working with. Which were Don, Gary, special effects producer, Fred Craig, storyboard artist, Dan Kuenster and other members of the team. During the Brunch, Victor told them a humorous story about taking a ride in a F-16 fighter jet, just two weeks before coming to Ireland. He explained that he had gone with Michael Landon to an invitation to experience the ride, and described the difficulty of getting into the cockpit behind the pilot. He blamed it on his size. He was a large man and the seat compartment was definitely not his size. However, ever since that flight he had been experiencing severe back pain. Enough pain that he actually felt ill, and was concerned that it may interrupt his focus and concentration to direct. That same day we set up an appointment at Black Rock Clinic, south of Dublin, for a full physical examination the following day. The results were tragic. He was diagnosed with “advanced stages of lung cancer” and was told that he had “maybe” eight weeks to get his affairs in order. He was on a flight back to California the very next day. He died just about the time the doctor’s had estimated, in mid-June.
A PANIC set in; with no time or money to waste, Don took on the role of live-action director. We arranged for a stretch limousine and driver to take him from the animation studio to MTM studios in Bray (AKA Ardmore Studios) each morning at 6:00 a.m. The drive took 45 minutes to an hour. Don took advantage of that time sitting in the back seat drawing storyboard animation panels to and from the live-action set, dropping off the drawings at the animation studio every evening to be assembled for review, corrections and approval.
Rock-A-Doodle was a title that songwriter T.J. Kuenster, came up with – based on the idea that the character Chanticleer is a rooster and roosters are known for their crowing early in the morning – which people mimicked the sounds as Cock-A-Doodle-Do. T.J. pitched the idea of Chanticleer’s character resembling Elvis (Presley), The King of Rock and Roll. It was approved. T.J. also had worked with Glen Campbell as the musical director on some of Glen’s TV shows. He was sure that he could get Glen to be the voice of Chanticleer and sing the songs T.J. would write. T.J. also knew the famous backup singers, who recorded with Elvis – the “Jordanairs”. He believed that Glen could help convince them to do the backup harmony to Glen’s song recordings. Once all the players were in place, working through the script with Don, T.J. came up with songs that would move the story along and help describe the characters’
In the end, we continued to have frustrating issues. The release date got changed (TWICE) by Goldcrest Films to avoid competing with other animated films releasing around the same time. It received a ‘G’ rating. The biggest frustration was that some of the most entertaining dark moments were deleted by a consultant/marketing executive at Goldcrest to be sure to get a “G” rating for the film. We wanted a “PG” rating to appeal to all ages.
Regarding the story of Chanticleer as an animated film, it’s true that Disney’s artists worked on several approaches over the years, as far back as 1937, based on Chanticleer and the Fox, eventually shelved in the mid1940s. Then again, in the early 1960s, Marc Davis, veteran Disney designer/directing animator/Imagineer tried to revive the concept designing some fabulous appealing characters and storyboards for an animated feature film, which Walt Disney rejected…again.