In 1939, Charlie Barkin and his assistant Itchy Itchiford are breaking out of a heavily secured dog pound, but in the process bust a water main and are discovered. The two barely escape while being shot at. Later, they make a grand entrance at Carface's casino operated in an old, idle oil tanker in a bayou. Apparently, Carface, unwilling to share the earnings, had been responsible for Charlie and Itchy getting committed at the pound. With everyone surprised at their arrival, Charlie and Itchy sing "You Can't Keep a Good Dog Down" for their confidence. After the song, Itchy is separated from Charlie via a trap door. Unaware of Carface's malicious intent, Charlie returns to him expecting open arms, but Carface wants to sever ties with him, claiming that authorities searching for Charlie will discover the operation. To get Charlie out of the picture for good, Carface and his partner Killer (Charles Nelson Reilly) arrange his death. Itchy discovers this plot, and attempts to warn Charlie. Carface takes Charlie to Mardi Gras to celebrate Charlie going into his own business. At the party, he gives Charlie a "lucky" gold watch. The drunk Charlie is then taken to the docks, while Itchy searches for him. Carface starts a car at the end of the docks, which then rolls down and run over at Charlie.
Having long, Charlie goes to Heaven by default, despite not doing a single good deed in the duration of his life; with the lovely angelic Whippet, Annabelle (Melba Moore) explaining that "Unlike people, dogs are naturally good, and loyal and kind". However, Charlie is upset and dissatisfied, having to die before his time, and distracts Annabelle, as he takes back his "life watch" while singing "Let Me Be Surprised." With the watch in hand, Charlie winds it back up, allowing him to return to Earth, and back to life. On Earth, Charlie visits Itchy at his home. Itchy is scared, believing Charlie is a ghost, but Charlie convinces him otherwise. The two then go searching for the secret to Carface's success. They crawl through the vents and discover an adorable and very beautiful orphan girl named Anne-Marie, living in the basement. This orphan has the incredible ability to talk to animals, which Carface has been using to find out who will win in future mouse races. Charlie decides to use this to his advantage and kidnaps her, taking her back to Itchy's house. Upon discovering this, and outraged Carface commands Killer to find her.
The next day, the trio heads to the horse track. With some difficulty, Charlie convinces Anne-Marie to talk to one of the horses, saying that any money they earn will go to the poor. The horse says that it is The Grand Chawhee's birthday, and that he will win. The group is then seen outside, looking for a way to get money to bet with. They find a couple, and Charlie tells Itchy to do "the number three." Itchy is then seen acting as though he is injured, in order to distract the couple while Charlie takes the man's wallet. After obtaining the wallet, the three leave to make the bet.
In the next scene, the three are seen stacked up under a pink overcoat. They make their bet and go to their seats. When the race starts, Chawhee is seen exiting his starting pen backwards. However, the other horses allow him to win. Charlie, Itchy, and Anne Marie collect their earnings, and are seen winning bets on numerous other races. However, Anne Marie is unhappy, and the trio goes out and buys her clothes. Itchy then builds a casino, which the two run successfully. Charlie then spots Anne Marie attempting to leave, unhappy because none of the money has gone to helping the poor, or to finding Anne Marie new parents, both of which were promised by Charlie. In order to stop her, Charlie decides to go "help the poor."
Meanwhile, Carface is about to lower killer into a pit of pirahnnas because of the failure to kill Charlie. While he is being lowered, he asks Carface to spare him, saying he has a gun. Carface pulls him up and asks what type of gun it is, to which Killer replies "a Flash-Gorden Thermo-Atomic Ray Gun." Carface appears to be pleased before the scene cuts to Charlie and Anne-Marie bringing pizza to a group of homeless puppies in a church. The puppies are happy to see Charlie and swarm the pizzas while Charlie introduces them to Anne Marie. The group then starts fighting over the last slice, which prompts Charlie to tell them about sharing, and he starts singing "What's Mine Is Yours." However, after the song, Charlie places a cake on the floor. The puppies then proceed to fight once again. While the dogs fight, Anne Marie notices a wallet on the floor, which belonged to the couple at the races. She asks Charlie where he found the wallet, to which he has no response. Anne Marie accuses him of stealing the wallet and, angrily, heads up the stairs into the attic. She then sings "Soon You'll Come Home."
The next scene is of Charlie, who is asleep. The watch then reopens, and Annabelle's voice comes out, saying that he can never come back. The scene is then launched into Charlie's dream, in which he is sucked down into hell. He lands on a ship in the lava while a Hellhound appears. The creature breathes fire onto the ship, from which small demons appear and attack Charlie. The ship starts to sink into the lava and Charlie climbs the front of the ship. He then wakes up to find himself on an upright broom between two shelves, with puppies on the shelves trying to wake him. Charlie falls over, and begins to look for Anne-Marie. She is not there, and Charlie asks the puppies where she went. One of the puppies tells him that she went to 402 Maple Street, where the Warlop family, the couple from the races, lives. Charlie then leaves and the next scene displays Anne Marie eating breakfast with the couple. Anne Marie tells the couple that she lives with Charlie, and that she has no parents. The couple exits the room to talk about her. While they are talking, Charlie shows up and convinces Anne Marie to leave with him. The two then pass through the market on their way home. Carface and Killer are also there with the ray gun. The two shoot charlie several times, but he survives, due to the watch being undamaged. As he and Anne Marie run away, a confused Killer starts to fire in random directions while the dog he and Carface are riding runs off.
Charlie and Anne Marie are then seen hiding in an abandoned building. The two fall through the floor, and Charlie loses his watch. In the flooded area beneath, he tries to find it. He sees it, but it starts floating away. Charlie and Anne-Marie are then picked up and moved in the same direction by an unseen force. They are then seen in cages being carried by rats. Charlie asks Anne Marie to talk to them, but she cannot understand them. Charlie attempts to grab his watch, but loses it again when he is dropped onto an island with Anne Marie. A moving object in the water circles the island before coming ashore, revealing it to be a giant alligator. The alligator places Charlie in its mouth, and Charlie howls. The alligator decides not to eat Charlie because to him, it sounds like singing, and begins to sing "Let's Make Music Together" with him, the less water killing Anne-Marie. During which Charlie recovers the watch. After the song, Charlie picks up Anne-Marie, who has caught pneumonia, and the two ride the alligator back into New Orleans.
Back at Charlie's Casino, Itchy is closing up, while Carface sneaks up on him and asks where Anne-Marie is. Itchy does not know, and Carface attacks him. At the church, Charlie is talking to the puppies' caretaker Flo about Anne-Marie when Itchy limps in. He tells Charlie what happened, and shows him the burning casino, suggesting the two leave Anne-Marie behind and go someplace else. Charlie tells him that they need to start over, and need her more than ever. Itchy accuses Charlie of being in love with her, and says he has gone soft. Charlie replies, saying that he doesn't care about her, that he is just using her, and when they are done with her, they'll put her in an orphanage. Anne-Marie overhears them, screaming like-crying at him and runs away, crying. Charlie runs after her, and stops at the entrance, where she has left her stuffed rabbit. He hears her scream, knows Carface has captured her, and runs after her. Itchy reaches the entrance, and the caretaker tells him to take the stuffed animal to 402 Maple Street. Itchy goes into town and asks other dogs where it is. These dogs tell him and spread the word to others. Itchy and many other dogs reach the house and give the animal to the couple.
Charlie reaches Carface's casino and attempts to rescue Anne-Marie, but Carface is expecting him and has his men attack. Charlie is captured and tied to an anchor. While this is happening, a dog bites Charlie's foot, and he howls, attracting the alligator. When Charlie is lowered, the alligator sets him free. While this is happening, Itchy is bringing a large group to the site. The alligator's attacks knock Anne-Marie's cage into the water and Charlie sets aside his watch to save her, but Carface attacks, knocking the watch away to land on a floating piece of debris. The alligator strikes again, knocking Carface into the water to be eaten, and Charlie dives in to save Anne-Marie, who falls into the water. Charlie grabs her and pulls her up, but her stuffed rabbit falls in. Charlie puts Anne-Marie on a piece of debris and pushes her outside, and dives in to get the watch. The watch, now at the bottom, floods and stops before Charlie reaches her stuffed rabbit.
As the ship was destroyed in the explosion, a large croud has gathered and witnesses Killer pushing Anne Marie ashore. 402 Maple Street is then shown, and inside, Anne-Marie is sleeping in a bed. Itchy limps up to the bed, jumps on top, and lies down beside her. A large demon emerges from the ground behind the house, and a red mist surrounds the area. Part of it enters Anne Marie's bedroom window, and Charlie emerges. He leans on the bed and apologizes to Anne-Marie. The demon calls to Charlie, but a glowing blue orb appears and destroys it. The orb enters through Anne-Marie's window and beckons to Charlie in Annabelle's voice, saying that he can go home. Charlie is confused, since she told him that he could never come back, but she tells him that, since he gave his life for Anne-Marie, he will be allowed into heaven. Charlie says goodbye to Anne-Marie who, having woken up, asks him if she will ever see him again. Charlie assures her that she will, and that goodbyes are not forever. He then leaves, disappearing into a column of glowing dust. As the credits begin to roll, Charlie calls out and requests some livelier music. Carface is seen entering heaven, swearing vengeance on the alligator. He then winds his own clock, while Annabelle yells at him, saying he can never come back. As she chases him into the distance, Charlie pops out of a cloud, saying "he'll be back." He then falls back into the cloud, and the credits roll.
- Burt Reynolds as Charlie B. Barkin - German Shepherd/Collie hybrid, the main protagonist.
- Dom DeLuise as Itchy Itchiford - Dachshund, works for Charlie.
- Judith Barsi as Anne Marie - Orphan human girl that can speak to animals. This is Judith Barsi's last role because she and her mother were killed in a murder-homicide a year and a half prior to the film's release.
- Lana Beeson as Anne-Marie's singing voice.
- Vic Tayback as Carface Carruthers - Pitbull/Bulldog hybrid, Charlie's former business partner and killer.
- Charles Nelson Reilly as Killer - Schnauzer/Poodle hybrid that works for Carface.
- Melba Moore as Annabelle - Angelic Whippet. Of course, she is not named until the Bluth-less sequel. Instead, here, she is credited as "Angelic Whippet."
- Ken Page as King Gator - Gigantic American alligator, Almost eats Charlie, kills Carface.
- Loni Anderson as Flo - a female Rough Collie and friend of Charlie's.
- Rob Puller and Earleen Carey as Harold and Kate, a married couple who later become Anne-Marie's adoptive parents.
- Campbell Morton as Hellhound - In Charlie's Nightmare.
- "Love Survives" - Irene Cara and Freddie Jackson - Length: 3:25 (Unlike the NTSC version, the soundtrack and European versions sound high-pitched.)
- "Mardi Gras" - Music Score - Length: 1:17
- "You Can't Keep a Good Dog Down" - Burt Reynolds and Dom Deluise - Length: 6:30
- "Hellhound" - Music Score - Length: 9:02
- "What's Mine Is Yours" - Burt Reynolds - Length: 1:48
- "At the Race Track" - Music Score - Length: 1:49
- "Let Me Be Surprised" - Melba Moore and Burt Reynolds - Length: 4:54
- "Soon You'll Come Home" (Anne-Marie's Theme) - Lana Beeson - Length: 2:38
- "Money Montage" - Music Score - Length: 3:43
- "Dogs to the Rescue" - Music Score - Length: 3:10
- "Let's Make Music Together" - Ken Page and Burt Reynolds - Length: 2:24
- "Goodbye Anne-Marie" - Music Score - Length: 2:10
- "Hallelujah" - Candy Devine - 1:21
- All Dogs go to Heaven is the only Don Bluth franchise to feature a "Star Wars Method," in which there would be similar changes of characters through each entry:
- Anne-Marie & Luke as old lovers to Charlie & Leia
- Sasha & Han Solo as new lovers
- Carface & Vader as the big bads
- Killer & Stormtroopers as the minions
- Red & Emperor as bigger bads replacing the big bads
- Belladonna & Jabba as predators who are minor villains 24/7
Whereas in all other franchises, there would be a "James Bond Method," in which, simply, females and villains come and go, because the heroes travel the world, making it hard to have a relationship.
Release and reaction
Dissatisfied with the terms imposed by Universal Studios, which had distributed their previous two films, the studio found an alternative distributor in United Artists. Somewhat unusually, production investors Goldcrest Films covered the cost of the release prints and the promotional campaign, in return for a greatly reduced distribution fee from UA. This was similar to the arrangement with United Artists when they distributed Bluth's first feature film, The Secret of NIMH. Goldcrest Films invested $15 million in printing and promoting the film. Due to contractual issues, very little tie-in merchandise accompanied the film's theatrical release; several computer games and software packages were released, and restaurant chain Wendy's offered toys with their Kids' Meals or regular fries.
All Dogs Go to Heaven opened in North America on November 17, 1989, the same day as The Little Mermaid produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation; once again, Sullivan Bluth Studios' latest feature would be vying for box office receipts with Disney's, just as their previous one (The Land Before Time) had. Many critics looked down upon the film, drawing unfavorable comparisons to Disney's offering, criticizing the disjointed narrative, the quality of the animation, and the songs by Charlie Strouse and T.J. Kuenster. Some also found the darker subject material objectionable in a family film, featuring as it does depictions of death, violence, drinking, smoking, gambling, demons and Hell. But reviews were positive, with critics praising the film's emotional qualities, humor and vibrant color palette. Roger Ebert, who was unimpressed with An American Tail, gave it three out of four stars. More recent reviews of the film have generally been less harsh, with Box Office Mojo awarding it a B- rating.
On its theatrical release, while still making its budget of $13.8 million back, All Dogs Go to Heaven's performance fell short of Sullivan Bluth Studios' previous box office successes, grossing US$27m in North America alone, just over half of what An American Tail and The Land Before Time each took. However, the film became a sleeper hit on its home video release; a strong promotional campaign helped it become one of the top-selling VHS releases of all time, selling over 3 million copies in its first month.