Animated films are from a niche market these days, with nearly every studio in deals with various animation houses to put out a barrage of family-friendly films for both children and adults. Additionally, animated films are goldmines, with movies like “Frozen,” “Minions,” “Toy Story 3,” “Finding Dory” and “Zootopia” all grossing over $1 billion at the box office (4/5 having been released by Disney). It’s only natural for others to be included in the fun, with many independent studios seeking to recreate not only the monetary success of these films, but also the emotional resonance that many of these films possess. Many of these films succeed, with foreign animation like “Phantom Boy” and more recently “The Red Turtle” finding critical success due to their powerful themes and beautiful animation.
“Rock Dog” is not one of these films.
Bodi (Luke Wilson) is a young Mastiff living on Snow Mountain, a community populated almost exclusively by sheep. His father, Khampa (J.K. Simmons) is a world renowned fighter who protected the sheep from a wolf attack in the past. Khampa is a strict traditionalist who expects Bodi to continue to protect Snow Mountain after his death, but Bodi isn’t born for self-defense, his obsession is music. After an incident proves to Khampa that Bodi will never be able to protect Snow Mountain, he allows Bodi to go to the big city to attempt to make it big with his favorite musician, Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard).
“Rock Dog” is perfectly harmless, but it’s almost shocking how derivative this film is of other, better animated films that all have come out very recently. The biggest pull of the film is from “Zootopia,” as “Rock Dog” also features a unique city featuring a barrage of different species living in harmony. Speaking of other films about animals in cities living in harmony, “Rock Dog” also takes quite a bit from “Sing,” in not only the reason specified before, but also in its inclusion of a music storyline, albeit with far less catchy tunes. “Rock Dog” is not only derivative, but uninspired in its execution; rather than attempting to mask its unoriginality with flashy visuals or big set-pieces, it simply accepts its fate as a rip-off film about halfway through, with no effort to even conceal its tactics.
I would be lying if I said that “Rock Dog” was a film that was malicious in its intent, though. As much as I really didn’t enjoy myself during “Rock Dog,” it is a harmless film that younger children will probably enjoy, but anyone over the age of 10 best stay away.
The voice cast for “Rock Dog,” however impressive and expansive, are almost all ill-cast, with the most egregious offender being Wilson as Bodi. As a young dog, having the trademark Wilson accent coming through doesn’t do much to convince me that he was a first choice for the role, but rather a last resort. The rest of the cast is filled out by awkward performances from Mae Whitman, Lewis Black, Kenan Thompson, Jorge Garcia, Matt Dillon and Sam Elliott as well, but more than lively animated characters, you hear nothing but the voices of these personalities we’ve come to know.
The animation, done by Reel FX, shows its low budget in many of the larger scenes of the film. Detail is sparse and undefined, making the characters of the film looks more like a dated video game than anything else. Even worse are the settings of the film, which is an awkwardly constrained use of space, as if they couldn’t afford to animate beyond a single room for each scene. Even more awkward is the lack of translation of the city signs from its native Chinese to that of English, which makes the film feel oddly cheap, despite not reflecting any of the animation work.
The only positive thing I can really level at “Rock Dog” is the brief glimpse of a subtext that the film holds. When you keep in mind that the film was made from Chinese funders, you begin to see the distinctions between the mountains and the city, with Snow Mountain reflecting that of Tibet and the big city reflecting that of mainland China. It’s a clever illusion that deserves a much better execution than seen here.
To put it shortly: “Rock Dog” was a waste of my time. Typically, even in bad films, I can find something to take away from the experience. In the case of “Rock Dog,” everything about the film is violently derivative and shamelessly cheap, making the entire experience feel lifted from other films that I’ve taken things away from. It not only makes “Rock Dog” a poor animated film, but one of a completely irrelevant experience. I gained nothing as a critic watching this film, and when a bad film isn’t fun to write about, that speaks wonders on the type of film it is: a useless one.
Directed by: Ash Brannon
Starring: Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard, J.K. Simmons, Lewis Black, Kenan Thompson, Mae Whitman, Jorge Garcia, with Matt Dillon, and Sam Elliott.
Runtime: 80 minutes
Rating: PG for action and language.
Summit Premiere presents, a Huayi Brothers Media Corp. and Mandoo Pictures production, in association with Huayi Tencent Entertainment Company, Eracme Entertainment and Dream Factory Group, “Rock Dog”