The second Chinese-American co-production to hit U.S. theaters in as many weeks, animated feature “Rock Dog” arrives one week after the release of another prominent co-production, the fantasy adventure “The Great Wall.” Director Ash Brannon brings Pixar and Sony bona fides (he co-directed “Toy Story 2” and directed “Surf’s Up”) to this adaptation of rocker Zheng Jun’s graphic novel “Tibetan Rock Dog,” which mixes Tibetan culture with contemporary Brit-rock and adds a splash of mob movies for kicks.
We start in a village on Snow Mountain, where a young mastiff, Bodi (Luke Wilson), and his dad, Khampa (J.K. Simmons), are tasked with guarding a bunch of ditzy, addled sheep from a pack of hungry wolves. An opening sequence, rendered in a hand-drawn style, nods to traditional Chinese art and music, and is folksily narrated by a mustachioed Yak, known as Fleetwood Yak, voiced by Sam Elliott.
We’re dropped right into this world without much context, and the drawn animation is soon set aside for serviceable computer animation. The characters aren’t fully expressive, and the environment and setting are boring – the frames and visual compositions themselves are dull, lacking in background detail. When we’re used to animated features with high joke-density, both visual and written, “Rock Dog,” is a serious downshift in energy and content.
Bodi discovers rock music on a radio dropped from a biplane and is soon obsessed with the tunes of Angus Scattergood. After a rift with his father over playing music or protecting sheep, Bodi heads for “the city” to find his tribe.
Through sheer fannish persistence, he connects with super cool, super isolated rocker Angus (Eddie Izzard), a lean, white, Wayfarered cat, a sort of Gallagher brother, by way of Russell Brand, by way of Blur. Soon they’re writing songs and eluding capture by the wolves, who are now suited up and organized into a crime organization, running cage matches in the city while surveilling Snow Mountain for a chance to chow on lamb chops.
While a mix of “Zootopia” and “Sing!” with hints of “Kung Fu Panda” seems like a great idea, the result is a strange combination. Those films created enormous, rich worlds, cultures and subcultures for anthropomorphic animals; there’s just not enough on the screen to buy into “Rock Dog.” It doesn’t gel and lacks the kind of visual kinetics and energy we’ve come to expect from films of this ilk.
Each scenario is more tortured and far-fetched than the last. It’s unclear why Bodi and his father have to guard the sheep. They have magical mastiff powers they are able to harness, kind of like Po the Panda, but it’s never fully articulated. Khampa runs Snow Mountain village like John Lithgow in “Footloose” – no music ever! Too dangerous. But that’s never motivated or fleshed out. Besides, if these wolves have cage-fighting to tend to, why would they want to eat the sheep on the mountain? The period, setting and character beats just don’t make sense.
“Rock Dog” is a perfectly fine and inoffensive afternoon at the movie theater, with a few great tunes, classics and original, to boot. Noodle-limbed feline rocker Angus Scattergood is an inspired creation. But you’ll hardly be itching for a rewatch anytime soon – there’s just not enough there to inspire any passion.
Cast: Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard, J.K. Simmons, Lewis Black, Kenan Thompson, Mae Whitman
Director: Ash Brannon
Rated PG (action and language)