Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 16, 2017)
In the same vein as 2016’s Sing, 2017’s Rock Dog looks at anthropomorphic animals who desire to become musical stars. Young mastiff Bodi (voiced by Luke Wilson) lives in the Tibetan village of Snow Mountain, a place where his father Khampa (JK Simmons) serves as town guardian to protect from wolves.
Khampa expects that Bodi will take his job when he retires, but the younger canine seeks a different path. After a radio falls from the sky, Bodi becomes fascinated with rock ‘n’ roll and decides he wants to pursue a career as a musician.
Though I alluded to Sing at the start, I can’t call Rock Dog a rip-off of that hit. A Chinese-American co-production, Rock Dog hit screens in Asia more than half a year before it came to the US, so it actually preceded Sing’s release date.
Also, other than their basic connections to music stardom, Sing and Rock Dog don’t have a lot in common. Instead, Dog feels a lot more like a spin on another animated franchise: Kung Fu Panda.
Though Dog goes for a narrative reverse. In Panda, our hero led a creative life but dreamed of action heroics, while in Dog, Bodi wants to shun his role as fierce guardian to focus his energies on musical endeavors.
And thus ends the semi-clever aspect of Dog, as beyond that minor twist, the movie fails to offer much to endear it to an audience. In the midst of big-ticket animated fare from studios like Pixar and DreamWorks, we get the occasional flick like this: budget work that hits screens with low expectations.
Though Dog violates some of those traits, partly because its $60 million budget isn’t peanuts. No, it doesn’t compare to the $100 million-plus some “A”-list films cost, but it’s not quite “low budget” territory, either.
Dog also comes with higher than usual expectations due to the presence of writer/director Ash Brannon. A veteran of the Pixar ranks, Brannon co-directed 1999’s Toy Story 2 and wrote/directed 2007’s Surf’s Up. With Brannon in charge, I figured Rock Dog might work better than the usual generic animated material.
Nope – everything about Rock Dog feels simplistic and flat, with little inspiration on display, and that becomes a disappointment. Toy Story 2 qualifies as a legitimate classic, and Surf’s Up delivers a quality experience as well.
Rock Dog lacks one-tenth of the creativity involved in either of Brannon’s other films, and it never threatens to break out of its doldrums. The story feels contrived and never especially convincing, so we don’t invest in Bodi or his journey.
Really, the movie often seems like little more than an excuse for a mix of musical sequence. The flick packs in a lot of tunes, and these can be tail that wags the (rock) dog, as the film too often appears to lack much other purpose.
The film’s relatively low budget shows via its weak animation. The visuals don’t match up with 2017 standards for CG cartoons, so the results come across as unnatural and unconvincing.
Dog gives us a pretty good cast, as along with Wilson and Simmons, we get talents like Eddie Izzard, Lewis Black, Sam Elliott, and Matt Dillon. None of them overcome the bland nature of the material, so they fail to add real spirit to the proceedings.
At its worst, Dog delivers passable entertainment, but that’s also what it does at its best. In a world packed with quality family films, “passable” doesn’t seem like much of a recommendation.