The animation boom that began with Who Framed Roger Rabbit has produced its share of oddities: feature-length cartoons about dinosaurs (The Land Before Time), talking kitchenware (The Brave Little Toaster), and rain forest elves (the upcoming FernGully). But the daffiest duck of all has to be Rover Dangerfield, a project that by pouring the soul, shtick, and bugging eyes of Rodney Dangerfield into ”funny animal” form begs to be taken as a kiddie classic.
Why would Dangerfield, who after the 1986 hit Back to School seemed to vanish from the planet, choose this bizarro project as his comeback? He’s enough of a cartoon in real life: All that tie tugging and shoulder shrugging carries an outsize quality, and his rim-shot tales of ”no respect” are funny precisely because they hover on the edge of unreality. When this dumpy, red- faced, middle-aged guy gripes that his wife likes to talk to him during sex and — yeahhh — last week called him from a motel, we laugh because he’s a walking caricature of domestic discomfort.
It’s not surprising, then, that Rover‘s bright, professional animation (directed by Jim George and Bob Seeley) uncannily captures Dangerfield’s grabby swagger. But there’s a reason this movie received only a quickie theatrical release — in places like Sacramento and Orlando, judging from the critics’ blurbs on the cassette box — before hitting video stores. Rover Dangerfield can’t decide whether it wants to play to the Borscht Belt or the sandbox. It’s a children’s film, all right, if your kids feel at home in the blackjack pit.
The opening scenes alone are enough to make Peggy Charren reconsider her retirement. Owned by a long-legged Las Vegas chorus girl, Rover (dialogue and voice supplied by Dangerfield) is a canine high roller who plays back-alley craps with bones, keeps his pals in stitches with lines like ”When I looked up my family tree, two dogs were usin’ it” (yeahhh), and sings the praises of the Vegas neon nightlife with a tune called ”It’s a Dog’s Life.” That’s before his owner’s Evil Boyfriend throws Rover off the Hoover Dam in a gunnysack. Hardened Road Runner fans can shrug off that scene, but it might make little ones choke on their Pudding Pops.
Rover gets rescued and ends up on a farm, where a towheaded kid talks his daddy into letting him keep the misshapen pup. That’s the end of the story line as such — even though there’s an hour more to go — and it’s also where Rover Dangerfield turns downright schizophrenic. On the one hand, it pokes merciless fun at yokels who live in the rural slow lane (”I’m on a farm!” crows Rover. ”How quaint! I’ve seen ’em on TV!”). On the other hand, it introduces a love interest in the form of a female collie named Daisy, to whom Rover croons not one, but two glutinous romantic ballads: ”I’d Give Up a Bone for You” and ”I’m in Love With the Dog Next Door.”
Admittedly, Rover has its share of lowbrow yuks whenever Dangerfield (who executive produced, wrote the script, and cowrote the songs) lets his dog-star be a slob. There’s one song here — ”I’d Never Do It on a Christmas Tree,” about exactly what it says — that should have kids rolling on the rug in bad-taste delight. And Rover’s one-liners to a snooty barnyard turkey carry the rude snap of Dangerfield’s best stand-up work. But at the climax, when Rover’s future looks grim and Daisy says to him, ”Of course I believe in you — you’re a good dog,” the miscalculation becomes actively surreal.
Dangerfield should have known he had written a no-win scenario. His strongest suit — that gleeful lounge-act vulgarity — has always been a little too crass for kids. Yet when Rover offers gooey, sentimental life lessons, it feels unconvincing, like a rock star in a suit. This mongrel-movie badly wants to be a kidvid hit, and with that star and decent animation chops, it stands a chance. But don’t bet the farm on it. C