The R-Rated Animated Movie That Ended Up With a G Rating

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Looking back at a Hollywood story that deserves some respect.

As we enter the weekend expecting to hear of parents accidentally bringing children to see Sausage Party, the very much not-for-kids animated feature conceived by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, it’s a good time to look back to another comedian’s attempt at an R-rated cartoon film that celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this month.

There’s not a lot of information online about Rover Dangerfield, the 1991 Warner Bros. release that saw Rodney Dangerfield caricatured on screen in dog form. There’s no data on its box office returns, very few reviews from the time, and even less written on the notoriously troubled production. Even Dangerfield gave it only brief mention in his book “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs,” reprinted below.

I put some of my own money into an animated movie about dogs. It had some songs, which I wrote, and I even sang a few. In character, of course. I thought it was a funny movie, but I had some trouble with the studio, and they buried it like a bone.

This animated movie was initially announced four years earlier for a planned December 1988 release. Dangerfield was riding high off the success of his 1986 comedy Back to School and intended to make an R-rated animated feature based on his brand of comedy. He got Harold Ramis, who’d worked on the Back to School script, to help with the story then wrote the screenplay himself, including, as he mentions, the songs.

The announcement of the movie also promised an animated Christmas special for CBS that year called Rodney Jr. and mentioned Dangerfield was about to begin production on Caddyshack II. He famously backed out of the latter, also a Warner Bros. production, and wound up sued by the studio (Jackie Mason, “another old Jew,” replaced him). I can’t help but believe the dispute is related to Rover Dangerfield, as part of the cause or the effect.

(By the way, that lawsuit went to trial and the judge reportedly yelled at the WB lawyers, “Aren’t you people ever going to come in front of me with a signed contract?” – a quote regularly cited in legal journals on Hollywood contract issues.)

The late ‘80s/early ’90s were a time when a number of comedians were becoming toons. Howie Mandel debuted the Saturday morning series Bobby’s World in 1990 based off one of his routines, Roseanne Barr became youthfully animated in the show Little Rosy, also in 1990, John Candy arrived a year earlier with TV’s Camp Candy, and Robin Harris got a posthumous feature film in 1992’s Bebe’s Kids, adapted from his stand-up.

But most of them toned down their shtick for those projects (if you grew up on Bobby’s World but never heard Mandel’s stand-up that inspired it, you may find it disturbing), with Bebe’s Kids being only slightly restrained and receiving a PG-13 rating. It all fit with the contemporary trend of adapting R-rated movies, like The Toxic Avenger, RoboCop and Rambo, into kids’ programs. Even Ralph Bakshi’s work could be found on Saturday mornings.

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Of course, around the same time that Rover Dangerfield was going through alterations to make it kid-friendly – under the salvaging leadership of Sue Shakespeare, who also worked on “rescue” jobs A Chipmunk Adventure and The Thief and the Cobbler during this period – Bakshi was done directing Mighty Mouse for CBS and looking to bring back the American for-adults animated feature with Cool World, which bombed when released in 1992.

Dangerfield might not have fared any better with an R-rated version of Rover Dangerfield, which probably was too adult even for his audience, despite his reputation for very blue material. Particularly in the context, in retrospect, of being made between the popular and relatively safe Back to School (I saw it in the theater at age 10 with only a fellow 3rd grader in my company) and the fairly family friendly 1992 sports comedy Ladybugs.

What’s interesting is the studio kept the general plot for Rover Dangerfield, and so it features somewhat questionable material, what with its seedy Las Vegas setting, for a G rating. Not even a PG. This got a G rating, which is hard to imagine today because that classification has become so rare. The title character is a gambling dog owned by a showgirl who escapes being murdered by gangsters onto a farm where he’s initially set to be put down. And among its songs is one about Rover never peeing on Christmas trees.

It’s not a totally awful movie, though, mainly because a lot of the animation is good for its time (artists on the job include “Bone” creator Jeff Smith, and the studio was Hyperion, which also made Bebe’s Kids and The Brave Little Toaster). And if you do like Dangerfield, it’s kind of funny to see him in dog form complete with tie to yank when he’s feeling hot under the collar. Still, it doesn’t deserve any more respect than the little it’s occasionally given.

What it did deserve was a more confident production, one that stuck to its original guns especially if it was Dangerfield’s baby and he was putting up much of his own money. Maybe it would have flopped, who knows. Instead it went out as something that’s hard to tell what it’s supposed to be, not unlike other movies these days that get mashed through an uncertainty of tone and desired rating (cough, Warner Bros.’ own Suicide Squad, cough).

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After not making its original 1988 release date, Rover Dangerfield was later scheduled for the spring of 1991. It was finally released theatrically on August 2, 1991, but it was dumped only to a few markets, including Sacramento and Orlando. Then it went straight to video the following February. It was never buried, though, and it’s easily found on DVD and streaming today, but it’s hardly something many people know about.

Hopefully curiosity can arise further, eventually, so that the full details on what happened behind the scenes can come out. Unfortunately, Dangerfield is no longer with us to offer his side of the story, which would be good for his legacy. I’d love if there was enough material for a documentary about Rover Dangerfield, similar to the absorbing look at what happened to The Thief and the Cobbler in The Persistence of Vision, seen below.

Even if Rover Dangerfield deserve the respect of our enjoyment, it does, like Richard Williams and The Thief and the Cobbler, deserve the respect, as does Rodney Dangerfield, of having its situation straightened out.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.