If you were a child of the 80s, you might remember an animated film called All Dogs Go to Heaven. Its theatrical release in 1989 was overshadowed by The Little Mermaid, which came out on the same day. Nevertheless, the VHS release was a huge success, which is how I came to watch this movie on repeat every Saturday morning growing up.
This film is about a fun-loving, fast-talking dog who is murdered by his former friend. Instead of going to Heaven, he cons his way into staying on Earth so that he can avenge his death. Along the way, he teams up with colorful characters, including a sweet orphan girl who teaches him about kindness, friendship, and love.
The film’s ending credits song “Love Survives” was dedicated to Judith Barsi, the young actress who played the orphan girl. As a child, I had no idea what this dedication meant. Years later, I was shocked and saddened to learn that All Dogs Go to Heaven was Judith’s last film before she and her mother were murdered by her father in a double murder-suicide.
Judith’s Childhood and Career
Judith Eva Barsi was born in Los Angeles, California, on June 6, 1978. Her parents, József Istvan Barsi and Maria Virovacz were both Hungarian immigrants.
Maria was a “momager” before that term existed. From the age of five, Maria aggressively pushed her daughter towards stardom. Luckily, Judith was a naturally gifted actress. She would appear in over seventy commercials during her short career as well as in numerous television shows and films. Don Bluth, the director of All Dogs Go to Heaven, praised her as “absolutely astonishing,” and he stated his intention to feature her prominently in his future productions.
By the time Judith started fourth grade, she was earning an estimated $100,000 a year, which allowed her family to live a lavish lifestyle. Instead of being proud of his brilliant daughter, whose stardom financially supported the entire family, he resented her success and close relationship with Maria.
It’s worth noting that Judith’s first role was in the 1984 TV miniseries Fatal Vision, in which she played the daughter of a U.S. Army officer who murders his wife and daughters. The show was based on a real-life case and ominously foreshadowed the tragedy that would fall upon the Barsi family four years later.
Maria and Judith Endure Years of József’s Abuse
József was an abusive alcoholic. During his alcohol-fueled rages, he would routinely threaten to kill himself, Maria, and Judith and burn their house down.
Inevitably, József’s verbal abuse escalated to physical. After one particularly violent incident, Maria called the police and claimed that her husband had punched and choked her. However, by the time the police showed up, she asked that they drop the matter, and the police agreed as they could not see any visible bruises on Maria’s face.
Despite the unimaginable stress of living with an abusive parent on top of being the family’s breadwinner (and not yet even ten years old), Judith was a consummate professional, always putting on a brave face at work. But a child can only take so much.
Judith began gaining weight and exhibiting disturbing behaviors, such as pulling out her eyelashes and pulling out her cat’s whiskers. In 1988, Judith had a mental breakdown in front of her agent while auditioning for what would be her final film, All Dogs Go to Heaven. Her agent listened in horror to a hysterical Judith describe some of her father’s abuse. She immediately took her to a child psychologist who determined that Judith was a victim of severe child abuse.
Now that Child Protective Services were involved, one would hope that Maria and Judith could finally escape their nightmare situation. But Maria convinced the caseworker that she had everything under control. She promised that she would leave her husband, explaining that she already had a secret apartment where she and Judith sometimes went to get a respite from him.
Maria’s friends begged her to leave József. Their friends and neighbors were all too familiar with the never-ending cycle of violence in the Barsi household. One neighbor claimed that József boasted over 500 times that he planned to kill his wife.
In a heartbreaking move that would cost her her life, Maria chose to stay. Her young daughter had just had a mental breakdown. Still, Maria simply could not bear to part with her fancy Hollywood lifestyle.
On July 25, 1988, Judith spent the last day of her life riding a bicycle around her neighborhood. Later that night, József walked into his daughter’s bedroom, placed a gun at her head, and pulled the trigger.
Maria heard the gunshot and immediately ran to Judith’s room. József then shot his wife. After leaving the bodies where they were for two days, he poured gasoline over the bodies and set them on fire before turning the gun on himself. A neighbor who heard the final gunshot called the police. Another neighbor saw smoke and called the fire station.
József had made good on his threats to destroy his family and home. The bodies were burned beyond recognition. Police openly wept as they carried Judith’s little body out of the house.
Judith and her mother are buried in adjoining plots in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills.
What saddens me the most is that, while this case is unique in its own tragic way, domestic violence as a whole is just as prevalent today and just as insidious. I know that Maria was also a victim of her husband’s cruelty, but I can’t help but want to blame as many people as possible for Judith’s death. Why were the police and Child Protective Services so eager to believe Maria’s version of events rather than investigate further, especially as a child was involved?
Unfortunately, I know the answer to these rhetorical questions. Things were different in the 80s. Police forces weren’t as aware of battered women’s syndrome and how the symptoms manifest. Child Protective Services were, and still are, underfunded and understaffed. Children fall through the cracks all the time. And we as individuals still feel uncomfortable inserting ourselves in family matters that are “none of our business.”
Now when I watch All Dogs Go to Heaven, I can’t help but note the bitter contrast of Judith’s ending in real life versus that of her character who is adopted by loving parents who dote on her and protect her. I was 10 years old when I first saw this film — the same age as Judith when she was murdered. I take small comfort in the fact that she is finally safe and at peace. All dogs go to Heaven, and I like to think that all children do as well.