Kernel Rating (out of 5): (2.5 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 80 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 7+. This animated film about a country dog who travels to the city to pursue dreams of playing rock and roll is pretty tame, but has some cartoon violence: a pack of wolves descend upon a small village, aiming to cook and eat the sheep who live there; some fights between the dog who defends the village and the wolves; characters are kidnapped and threatened with physical violence; a main character considers the idea of stealing an idea from someone and not giving them proper credit; a fire spreads though a village; some bathroom humor; there is a cage match fight where a grizzly bear tries to kill the protagonist; and there is some bullying and mocking of the country dog by some of the “cooler” city folk.
‘Rock Dog’ revisits ideas from better animated films, like ‘Kung Fu Panda’ and ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ and tries to adapt them to its premise of a small-town dog who wants to play rock music. The disparate ideas never really come together, and the film is almost immediately forgettable.
By Roxana Hadadi
The voice-acting cast assembled for “Rock Dog” is almost surprisingly good—Sam Elliott, Eddie Izzard, J.K. Simmons—but they can’t elevate this material, a mish-mash of story elements executed more effectively in films like “Kubo and the Two Strings” and the “Kung Fu Panda” series. This Chinese-American co-production, an adaptation of the Chinese graphic novel “Tibetan Rock Dog,” has some memorable moments, but for the most part its subplots are too incongruous to make a real impact on viewers.
The film focuses on the titular Bodi (voiced by Luke Wilson), a Mastiff dog who has grown up in a remote village, Snow Mountain, populated almost exclusively by sheep; it’s a beautiful place nestled in the mountains, and Bodi’s father Khampa (voiced by J. K. Simmons, of “La La Land”) moved there years ago to be its protector from wolves who want to invade the town and eat all of its inhabitants.
Vigilant to a fault, Khampa has put a stop to music, singing, and basically fun, but as Bodi grows up, those are the things he wants most—and when a radio literally falls from the sky and he hears rock music for the first time, he realizes he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead, Bodi’s passion is guitar, and his immediate idol is rock star Angus Scattergood (voiced by Eddie Izzard, of “The LEGO Batman Movie”)—and all of that sounds like nonsense to Khampa.
Nevertheless, Khampa lets Bodi leave for the city, with an ultimatum: He either succeeds and stays there, or fails and come back to be the protector of Snow Mountain. It’s either one way or the other, and when the sheep throw Bodi a going-away party, Khampa doesn’t even attend.
It’s in the city where the film’s narrative splits into too many directions: Bodi, with only his guitar on his back, starts hanging out at Rock and Roll Park (the literal name of the place) to try and find a band, where self-absorbed rockers mock him and his “swamp fiddle”; he ends up at Angus Scattergood’s heavily protected home, where he learns that the rocker is deeply suffering from writer’s block; and he’s seen by the wolves who once attacked Snow Mountain, who recognize him as Khampa’s son and want to kidnap him to use as leverage against his father.
“Rock Dog” isn’t a particularly lengthy film—clocking in at around 80 minutes—but the subplots are so convoluted that the film starts dragging as soon as the city part of the story begins. The whole thing with the wolves feels particularly needless; the bad blood between them and Bodi’s father is obviously meant to raise the stakes, but why are these gangsters who run a fighting venue so obsessed with grilling up these sheep? Part of that narrative feels thoroughly antiquated and part of it feels determinedly modern, and the two modes of thinking don’t quite work. The story twist only really serves to set up a too-brief climax where Bodi is challenged to “find the fire inside,” a mystical element that was similarly (and more enjoyably) explored in last year’s “Kubo and the Two Strings.”
There are other question marks here, too, like why the film needed a narrator (in the form of an yak, voiced by Sam Elliott, who is always welcome but is fundamentally extraneous), and why the character of Angus Scattergood is almost instantly fine with doing something utterly immoral (has he been dishonest like this in the past?). The bright colors and simplistic jokes (Khampa complaining of the sheep, “They’re like a bunch of animals that can’t think for themselves”) will go over fine with younger kids, and soundtrack additions like the Foo Fighters and Radiohead are surprisingly welcome, but there is nothing particularly unique or creative enough about “Rock Dog” to make it memorable. It is an acceptable way to spend 80 minutes staring at a screen with children. That is about it.
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