The film was produced at Sullivan Bluth Studios in Dublin, Ireland, funded by UK-based investors Goldcrest Films. On its cinema release it competed directly with an animated feature released at the same time, The Little Mermaid produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation. While it did not repeat the box-office success of Sullivan Bluth's previous feature films (An American Tail and The Land Before Time) it was very successful on home video, becoming one of the biggest-selling VHS releases ever. The film inspired a theatrical sequel, a television series and a Christmas telefilm.
Having died, Charlie goes to Heaven by default, despite not having done a single nice thing in his life; as the angelic Heavenly Whippet explains, "unlike people, dogs are naturally good and loyal and kind”. Dissatisfied at having died before his time, Charlie takes back his "life watch" (a glowing pocket watch) and winds it up again, forsaking his place in Heaven and returning himself to Earth. While he has been returned to life, and cannot die while his life watch still ticks, when it does stop he will be condemned to Hell for eternity (as the Heavenly Whippet says through the watch, "You can never come back").
Back on Earth Charlie reunites with Itchy and plots his revenge against Carface by setting up a rival business, "Charlie's Place". Itchy is reluctant to cooperate, fearing retribution not only from Carface but also a "monster" he has heard Carface possesses. Upon investigation, Charlie discovers the "monster" is in fact an orphan named Anne-Marie who Carface has been harboring because of her ability to communicate with animals, giving Carface the advantage when gambling on races. Seeing the potential to use Anne-Marie's gift for his own gain, Charlie decides to take her, promising he will only use her abilities to do good and that he will find her a family. Ever the con-artist though, Charlie has no intention of doing so, and continues with his criminal ways, pickpocketing a married couple while Anne-Marie unwittingly helps divert their attention. When Anne-Marie finds out, she is furious. His conscience pricked, Charlie begins to worry about his fate, and that night suffers a nightmare where he is banished to Hell and is encountered by a monstrous, doglike version of the Devil and its minions. The nightmare ends with the Devil saying to Charlie, "You can never go back!"
The next morning, Charlie wakes to find Anne-Marie has left to return the wallet he stole, and goes after her. He finds her eating breakfast with the couple in their home, and the couple planning to take Anne-Marie in. Realising he is about to lose his trump card in his revenge against Carface, Charlie tricks Anne-Marie into leaving by pretending to be unwell. As they leave, they are ambushed by Carface and his sidekick Killer. Hiding in a dilapidated warehouse, they fall through the crumbling floor and into a flooded underground cavern. There they are captured by a tribe of mice who plan to sacrifice them to King Gator. Moments from being devoured, Charlie lets out a melodic howl of anguish. King Gator, a camp character with a penchant for musical theatre-style songs, instantly develops a liking for Charlie's voice and sets him and Anne-Marie free. Unfortunately, their adventure in the flooded underground caverns has left Anne-Marie sick with pneumonia.
Meanwhile Carface, still out to get Charlie, storms into Charlie's Place with his thugs, assaults Itchy and sets fire to the establishment. When Charlie returns, Itchy is angry at him for paying more attention to Anne-Marie instead of being there to help his oldest friend. Charlie, in frustration, replies that he is only using her (despite having obviously grown to care deeply about her). Unfortunately, Anne-Marie overhears and, despite her illness, rushes heartbroken out into the night. Before long, Carface spots her and recaptures her, taking her to his hideout in an old oil tanker. When Charlie and Itchy realize what has happened, Itchy rounds up all the dogs in the neighborhood and heads to the married couple's house to alert them to Anne-Marie's plight, while Charlie heads for Carface's hideout to confront him and rescue the girl.
At Carface's hideout, Charlie fights his way through a horde of henchmen, but soon gets captured and tied to an anchor, ready to be thrown into the water. As he struggles, Charlie gets bitten and lets out a piercing howl; King Gator hears the voice and rushes to his aid. Just as Charlie is about to drown, King Gator frees him and begins tearing the oil tanker apart. Charlie confronts Carface in a deadly battle while the ship breaks apart around them. With the shaking and shuddering, the cage holding Anne-Marie falls into the river, and some oil barrels get knocked over, starting a fire. Charlie goes to save Anne-Marie, but Carface leaps on him and knocks his precious life watch, the only thing keeping him alive, onto the debris floating on the water. Just as Carface is about to deliver a killing bite to Charlie, King Gator rams the ship again. Carface tumbles into the water where he is chased away by King Gator. Charlie leaps to save both his life watch and Anne-Marie, but is unable to get to both in time; faced with the choice, he saves the girl. His watch sinks to the bottom of the river, its workings fill with water and it stops. At this point Charlie drowns trying to save his watch. On the riverbank, Itchy and the other dogs have led the married couple to the scene. Carface's former sidekick, Killer, has carried Anne-Marie away from the burning ship to safety.
Some time later, Anne-Marie sleeps at the married couple's house. Charlie's spirit returns, escorted by the Devil from his nightmare, to bid her farewell before he is banished to Hell. As the Devil beckons Charlie, a bright blue light enters and drives it away, and the voice of the Heavenly Whippet tells Charlie that his act of self-sacrifice has earned him his place in Heaven again. Charlie says his heartfelt goodbyes to Anne-Marie, and returns to Heaven.
In Heaven, Carface is furious at his untimely death (he had been killed and eaten by King Gator) and, just as Charlie did, he winds up his life clock to return to life, swearing revenge on King Gator. With a wink at the camera, Charlie remarks, "He'll be back".
Ichy Ichy is a Dachshund. He doesn't like to take risks, and is very different from Charlie, Ichy's best friend. Ichy wears a backwards, red cap and a green T-Shirt. Ichy seems to always have fleas, therefore, he is always scratching himself. He tries to warn Charlie about Carface's plan to kill Charlie, but is too late and misses Charlie, though he gets scared of Charlie when he meets him again, claiming that Charlie is a ghost, until Charlie takes out one of his on fleas and asks Ichy if ghosts have fleas. Ichy is very loyal to his friends, but, at first, doesn't like Anne-Marie, because he knows Carface will try to find Anne-Marie and will try to kill whoever had taken her.
Anne-Marie Anne-Marie is an orphan who can talk to any animal. She first lived with Carface, where she had to ask rats who they think will win the rat race. She is very unhappy though, as she cannot go outside, and stays in a little room. After Charlie is killed he goes to see if Carface has a monster, as Ichy said Carface has, but sees Anne-Marie and decides to rescue her (but he actually just wants to bet and get money. This works, but Anne-Marie is angry at Charlie, because he said they'd give money to the poor and find Anne-Marie some parents. Charlie manages to make Anne-Marie happy though. Anne-Marie is saved by Charlie near the end of the film.
Craface Carface is a bulldog. He shared a casino with Charlie, but his greedy, and planed to kill Charlie. Carface doesn't sing a song in the film. He likes to smoke.
During the production of their previous feature film, Sullivan Bluth Studios had moved from Van Nuys, California to a state-of-the-art studio facility in Dublin, Ireland, and All Dogs Go to Heaven was their first to begin production wholly at the Irish studio. It was also their first to be funded from sources outside of Hollywood; the previous two feature films, An American Tail and The Land Before Time, had been backed by Amblin Entertainment and Universal Pictures, and executive producers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had exercised a degree of control over the content of the films, a situation Bluth found disagreeable. The studio found investment from UK-based Goldcrest Films in a US$70m deal to produce three animated feature films (though only two, All Dogs Go to Heaven and Rock-A-Doodle, would be completed under the deal). The three founding members of the studio, Bluth, Pomeroy and Goldman, had all moved to Ireland to set up the new facility, but during the production of All Dogs Go to Heaven, John Pomeroy returned to the U.S. to head up a satellite studio which provided some of the animation for the film. Pomeroy also used his presence in the U.S. to generate early publicity for the film, including a presentation at the 1987 San Diego Comic-Con.
The film's lead voices, Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise, had previously appeared together in a number of films, including The Cannonball Run. For All Dogs Go to Heaven, they requested they be allowed to record their parts in the studio together (in American animation it is more common for each actor to record their part solo). Bluth agreed, and allowed Reynolds and DeLuise to ad-lib extensively; Bluth later commented “their ad-libs were often better than the original script”. Another pair of voices, those of Carface and Killer (Vic Tayback and Charles Nelson Reilly respectively) also recorded together.
As production neared completion, the studio held test screenings and decided that some of the scenes were too intense for younger viewers. When first submitted to the MPAA, All Dogs Go to Heaven received a PG rating. Writer and producer John Pomeroy found this unacceptable, and decided to shorten or remove several shots in order to attain a G rating, most notably a clear shot of Charlie being knocked down by a car, and his nightmare about Hell. Co-director Gary Goldman also agreed to the cuts, recognising that some concessions needed to be made in the name of commercial appeal. Don Bluth previously owned a private film print of the uncut version, which he had planned to duplicate onto video to convince Goldcrest to release in its original form, but it was stolen from a locked storage room. The original drawings and cels of all scenes, including the cut scenes, were destroyed by Goldcrest Films so that they would avoid paying storage fees.
All Dogs Go to Heaven opened in the U.S. 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 were hard on the movie, 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 found the darker subject material objectionable in a family film, featuring as it does depictions of death, violence, drinking, smoking, gambling, demons and Hell. However, there were positive reviews, with critics praising the film's emotional qualities, humor and vibrant color palette. Famed film critic Roger Ebert 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 it's 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$26m, 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. As of 2008. 38% of the critics give positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but this is only based on 8 reviews. The more numerous website users, on the other hand, gave it a score of 70%.