Movie review: 'Rock Dog' obeys every command of a formulaic kids' tale

By: Jane Horwitz The Washington Post
February 24, 2017 Updated: February 24, 2017 at 4:15 am
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Bodi and Angus Scattergood in "Rock Dog." MUST CREDIT: Lionsgate Premiere

Starring Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard, J.K. Simmons, Lewis Black, Kenan Thompson, Mae Whitman; directed by Ash Brannon; 80 minutes; rated PG for action and language

"Rock Dog," an ungainly animated fable about a Tibetan mastiff who longs to be a guitar-shredding rocker, never really comes to heel.

Intermittently diverting as it might be, the movie bears all the earmarks of a cobbled- together, made-by-committee product, poorly aimed at its tween-and-younger target audience in look, tone, music and story.

Although scripted and computer-animated in the U.S., "Rock Dog" is based loosely on a 2009 graphic novel, "Tibetan Rock Dog," by Chinese rock star Zheng Jun. Financed by Chinese investors, it opened in Shanghai last summer and now has arrived stateside (though one suspects not for long). The characters, all animals, have an unlovely, hard-plastic sheen. Moments of visual beauty and comedic charm nevertheless provide grace notes at the beginning and end of the movie, bookending a lot of crass fluff.

Director Ash Brannon, a co-director and co-writer on "Toy Story 2" (1999) and "Surf's Up" (2007), fails to find much magic in his reimagining of the original tale, despite the involvement of multiple writers.

A young dog named Bodi (voice of Luke Wilson) lives in the picturesque Tibetan village of Snow Mountain, where sheep's wool and textile mills provide the town's livelihood. All the sheep line up quietly to be sheared, then put on caps and sweaters against the cold and go about their business. The mastiffs guard the sheep and the village from lurking wolves.

Bodi's gruff dad, Khampa (J.K. Simmons), who heads up the canine guard unit, has invented an ingenious secret method of keeping the wolves at bay. He tries to train Bodi to join the team, but Bodi can't keep his mind on the work. It wanders to the antique musical instruments that his dad keeps locked away.

One day a small plane flies overhead and loses its cargo, including a bright red radio. Bodi turns it on and hears the music of rock legend and lean feline Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard), who inspires the young mastiff when he tells an interviewer that any youngster with musical dreams should "play your guts out, even when your dad says 'Stop.'"

The village sage, Fleetwood Yak (Sam Elliott), urges Khampa to let Bodi be Bodi and follow his dream, so the young hero rides the bus to the big city. On his arrival there, the movie loses its charm.

In Rock 'n' Roll Park, Bodi meets other wannabe musicians, who mock his talents and send the naive country dog to Angus Scattergood's hilltop mansion in the belief that the star will give him music lessons. But Angus has a bad case of writer's block and no time for novices.

Throughout this adventure, a wolf villain named Linnux (Lewis Black) has his brainless goons trailing Bodi in an attempt to kidnap him and force him to reveal his father's anti-wolf strategy. Somewhat pointlessly, Linnux also runs a fight club where a bear beats unfortunate captives in a cage. Linnux and his minions serve no artistic purpose other than to give the plot a kick toward the finale.

As a follow-your-dream tale, "Rock Dog," of course, ends happily for Bodi and everyone else. But the ending, like much of what comes before, feels more artificial than organic.

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