REVIEW – “Rock Dog” Leaves a Disappointing Mess in the Family Movie Garden

by Joe Hammerschmidt

For all the times I wind up waking round 7:30 on a Saturday morning to trek outward to a quiet little theater for a family-friendly film (15 so far), only three or four had actually been worth it; Peanuts, Home, and most recently Trolls. Alas, this film isn’t one of them, nor could it even make an effort to be.

Animation veteran Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2, Surf’s Up)’s third feature as director expectedly lacks in drive and enthusiasm, in what could’ve otherwise been a unique co-productive effort between the US and China, where far more of the revenue for this project will come from without question. “Rock Dog” (least original title of the decade) sets itself around a rather cartoonish Nepal, with city backdrops around what I assume would be a lesser version of Shanghai.

The former serves the starting point for our picture, centering on Bode (still-hungry-for-work Luke Wilson) a young adult mastiff living under the foot of his father, high sentinel chief guard Khampa (JK Simmons, whose performance pales too poorly compared to the magic show his voice created in Zootopia). He only wishes for Bode, currently a head trainer for the village security squad; all sheep in wooden dog costumes, so few of the gags created by result are even remotely funny; to just find the natural energy his chosen life had been given, and just enjoy the work presented to him, even if the work is just a disappointing endeavor anyway.

The actual story begins to take shape when a random cargo plane takes an accidental sharp turn with its doors still open, leaving debris. Amongst said rubbish is a quaint little radio through which the bevy of stations he could’ve picked up from such a great distance in the mountains introduces him to what could be his true calling: amateur musician. Only problem: village had outlawed all music when Bode was a pup to avoid all distractions, in case of another attack by wolf mafia. I kid you not; wolf mafia.

Despite stern disapproval by his father, Bode sets out into the big city to realize his musical aspiration; it’s there that the rest of our stock characters arrive into place, such as semi-supportive acquantances Darma, Germur and Trey (Mae Whitman, Jorge Garcia and Matt Dillon), an aging feline musician on the verge of being ousted from the scene (Eddie Izzard), and Linnux (Lucas Black), once again a mafia wolf with too much time on his hands alongside screw-up lackey Riff (Kenan Thompson). Our hero will strive to impress one, save another from the brink, and avoid destruction of his own likelihood from the other. Hopefully it’s not much of a spoiler if it seems obvious already which is which.

The trailers I had seen for this drek had offered me false hope, thinking this would not be as painful to watch as last year’s Norm of the North. With “Norm”, I could go in knowing it was bad enough to keep expectations low. Here, I may have set those same expectations higher than needed, and I paid the price. When it comes to any co-financed production with a direct-to-video budget, animated inexpensively, with a B- cast, but also containing a plot that while insufficient by today’s standards also factors in a fair message for musicians specifically, there should be some payoff to look forward to, right? Unfortunately, far from it.

Had there been more effort put in, with the focus made to look less like an offshoot of the myriad of anthropomorphic animal films recently (Zootopia, Kung Fu Panda 3, and a small touch of the musical qualities from Sing) and more an original work, I’d have had a better take. Instead, this is just an insult, and with all the elements blended together, the glove of shame fits it perfectly. Much like “Norm” and last fall’s now forgotten “The Wild Life”, here was just another acquisition Lionsgate considered would look a decent investment in acquiring without giving two tin shillings about the product.

“Rock Dog” feels so much like it should’ve have been better, and it wanted to be but it just stopped trying after a short while; the wonderfully animated 2D prologue narrated by Sam Elliot’s “Fleetwood Yak” character (whose presence made the experience tolerable) serves as a testament to the awkwardness, and to the shame, and to the time wasted in viewing this film. If your children have a firm affinity with dogs or are aspiring musicians, and are rather young (grade school age), they’ll have the most to benefit. Otherwise, consider renting down the line. (D)

“Rock Dog” opens Friday at most area theaters; rated PG for action and language; 89 minutes