By Glenn Billman, news staff
If “High School Musical,” “Mulan” and “Sing” were to have a baby, “Rock Dog” would be it. Animated animals? Check. Catchy musical numbers? You bet. A defiant son disregarding his father’s wishes to follow his true passion for song? Present. An epic fight sequence to protect a village with the help of one’s friends? Absolutely.
Overall, “Rock Dog” is a cute iteration of the tired father/son dynamic in which a kid tries to follow his dreams while his father is determined to continue the family way of life. Bodi (Luke Wilson) is a Tibetan mastiff destined to guard Snow Mountain and the sheep that live there from a pack of wolves like his father (J.K. Simmons) before him. However, when Bodi comes across a radio and discovers rock ‘n’ roll, he finds his true purpose: Playing music. When his father gives in and allows him to travel to Rock ‘n’ Roll Park, he has to find a mentor, create a band and figure out a way to keep himself and his home safe.
Bodi’s character is as lovable as a real dog: Humorously naive, earnestly loyal and endlessly optimistic. While he’s constantly tricked into harm and embarrassment, he keeps strumming his nail-and-string guitar until rockstar Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard) takes notice of his talent. The wolf pack simultaneously suffers many a mishap as they tried to capture Bodi in their quest to attack—and eat—the sheep of Snow Mountain. The story lines come together at the climax as Angus and Bodi use children’s movies staples like friendship, magic and gravity defying parkour to save the day.
While the plot sometimes verges on rudimentary, the animation was incredibly detailed and engaging. From the mountain village to the neon skyscrapers, “Rock Dog” included rich visual allusions to “Tibetan Rock Dog,” the Chinese comic by former rocker Zheng Jun on which the film is based. The frequent reliance on clichés is further ameliorated by a clever use of slapstick comedy, sheep jokes and rock references, which left audience members of all ages giggling throughout the film.
Another notable aspect of the movie are the forces that created it. “Rock Dog” is a Chinese-American venture fully funded by Chinese backers but directed by American Ash Brannon and animated in the United States. Despite being the most expensive Chinese animated movie of all time, it flopped in Chinese theatres when it opened in July 2016 with limited screenings.
“Rock Dog” starts slow and ends predictably, but overall it’s sweet, funny and feel-good. The biggest pitfall, however, was the lack of female roles. Mae Whitman was her typical lovely self—hilariously deadpan with just the right amount of earnest goodness—but her microscopic part as a bass-playing fox named Darma made her the only named woman in the cast. “Rock Dog” managed to avoid trivializing her further by excluding a romantic tie between Darma and Bodi, but it was nonetheless disappointing to see such a typical display of Hollywood representation.
Furthermore, the soundtrack was catchy but unremarkable, especially considering the musical focus of the movie. Featuring the Foo Fighters, Beck and Adam Friedman’s original composition “Glorious,” it failed to create a new hit or include any real rock wonders.
On the whole, “Rock Dog” is surprisingly uplifting. The predictability is comforting, the jokes are well-written and the animation is stunningly intricate. Like Bodi, with a little bit of time and a few hiccups, “Rock Dog” emerged a star.
Photo courtesy Getty Images