written by: Ash Brannon; story by Ash Brannon and Zheng Jun
produced by: Rob Feng, Joyce Lou, David B. Miller, Amber Wang
directed by: Ash Brannon
rated: PG (for action and language)
runtime: 80 min.
U.S. release date: February 24, 2017
"Eating food out of a dumpster? This is what he said would happen."
As a film geek and a parent, the temptation is high to take my daughters to the movies any chance I get. The option to do so is almost always present thanks to films like "Rock Dog" that fill in the movie release calendar between the big animated event films. The problem with these films released by a company that's not Disney, Dreamworks, LAIKA, etc. is that they are often of such poor quality that they become also-rans in a world with seemingly limitless options. For every "Finding Dory" and "Secret Life of Pets" last year, there was a "Norm of the North" and a "Ratchet & Clank," subpar efforts designed to sucker parents like me into wasting money simply to keep my daughters quiet for the better part of ninety minutes.
Every now and again, however, a film like "Rock Dog" comes along that's better than the average non-marquee animated film. A lot of that falls on the shoulders of the voice cast, because the script is your typical, run-of-the-mill, follow your dreams story we've all seen a thousand times. The film opens with the dulcet tones of Sam Elliot as a yak named Fleetwood, as he explains life in the Tibetan town of Snow Mountain. A guard dog named Khampa (J.K. Simmons) uses his special skills to protect the sheep of the mountain from an invading force of wolves led by Linnux (Lewis Black).
Khampa's son Bodi (Luke Wilson) isn't terribly interested in the family business, though, and while walking one day, a radio falls from a passing airplane, introducing him to the world of rock and roll. He decides to follow the advice of rock star cat Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard) and follow his dreams of becoming a rock star by traveling to the big city to take music lessons from Angus. Once in the city, he is put through the ringer by Angus' state of the art security system, and is soon duped into writing a song to help the blocked rock star cat get his groove back.
As I said, nothing groundbreaking story-wise, but did you see that cast? Add in supporting work by Kenan Thompson, Mae Whitman, Jorge Garcia, and Matt Dillon, and you've got one of the best casts in an animated film I've seen in some time. These various actors help the material to rise above its rather mediocre origins, with Izzard taking the gold star as, essentially, an animated version of Bill Nighy's aging rock star character from "Love Actually."
The animation quality is also surprisingly very good considering this didn't come from a mega-animation house. It looks better than a good number of below the line animated features I've seen, though it struggles with the details. Take any random still image from "Zootopia" and you'll see the frame packed with detail and a large number of characters filling out the world. "Rock Dog" on the other hand never seems to have more than a handful of characters on screen at any given time and the only details you'll notice in many scenes are that all of the writing on signs and buildings is in Chinese. The film clearly can't compete with something like "Zootopia" or any of the other big budget, anthropomorphic talking animal movies, but it's honestly not even trying to compete.
Audiences in general want to compare films to one another. It's an easy temptation to fall into, particularly in a day and age when films seem so similar. I do think, though, that even the most cynical moviegoers can recognize when a film is a knock-off of another rather than just a coincidentally similar. "Rock Dog" clearly never set out to be the biting social satire that "Zootopia" was, so it's entirely unfair to judge it as such.
Don't be surprised to find yourself charmed by this winning little film, provided you temper your expectations according to how I laid things out in this review. If you have kids, they'll definitely enjoy the film, and even if you don't, I think the voice cast alone is worth the price of admission. In a time where the phrase, "not every movie can be (fill in the title of some super successful film)," it's nice to remember that not every movie is trying to be one. "Rock Dog" succeeds on its own merits, and that's the only criteria anyone should use to judge any film.