“It’s your life. Make it a happy one.”
The most enjoyable aspect of Rock Dog is its absurd, bald-faced existence. The mere fact that Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard, J.K. Simmons, Lewis Black, Kenan Thompson, Mae Whitman, Jorge Garcia, Matt Dillion and Sam Elliott all willingly signed contracts, came to the recording studio and received vocal cues from Ash Brannon, the director behind Surf’s Up and (in part) Toy Story 2, to tell the story of an animated dog that plays rock music is amusing on its own accord. Knowing thousands of Chinese animators banded together to bring it to life under a $60 million price tag, making it the most expensive Chinese-financed animation production ever, adds to its inherent ridiculousness.
I mean, who on Earth — no matter the continent — could possibly consider Rock Dog such a worthy, investing cinematic spectacle? Some deep pockets in China, apparently, as Rock Dog is, indeed, a real, tangible movie that comes into theaters this weekend, and one that features the legendary Elliott as a mentor figure named Fleetwood Yak. You can’t make it up; it’s real. It’s actually here.
But that’s part of the problem. You see, it’s fun to joke about Rock Dog. It’s really fun, in fact. Because it’s a super easy target. It’s a fun, winking joke in the film community to throw its idiotic name into Facebook/Twitter conversations when moviegoers gush over, say, The Lego Batman Movie, John Wick: Chapter Two and/or Get Out — all genuinely good (or, at least, pretty good) movies released the same exact month as motherfrickin’ Rock Dog! All those other films truly seem like exceptions to the rule for February. Rock Dog, however, is exactly the kind of inane, poorly-conceived garbage you’d expect to see projected during the second wintry month of the year.
Here’s the thing, though: Rock Dog isn’t all that bad. It’s definitely not good, mind you, but it’s not terrible either. It’s an insistently mediocre family-friendly release, one that doesn’t entirely live up to the silliness of the concept — one that, again, I should stress features Elliott as FLEETWOOD YAK!, which isn’t even called upon — but one that isn’t as cloying, grating and despicably irritating as, say, last year’s intolerably ugly, tone-deaf Norm of the North. For as silly as it appears, it’s remarkable just how bland an animated, wide-released, multi-million dollar movie called Rock Dog can become.
The story, while it centers around a rocking dog and features Fleetwood Yak (voiced by Sam Elliott!), is basically your generic “boy with a dream and a stubborn father” story. It’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, How to Train Your Dragon and multiple other animated movies, including Surf’s Up, to various degrees or another, minus the palpable enthusiasm, proper world building, enjoyable, endearing characters, bulging maturity and compelling, engaging depth. Bodi (Wilson, whom I suspect is filling in for Justin Long) lives in a sheep-infested village, where the threat of ravenous wolves prevents Bodi’s dad Khampa (Simmons) from inviting any activities besides watchdogging — and that includes music. But when a mysterious package provides a heaven-sent wooden guitar, Bodi rocks during every waking hour. Inspired by the legendary, if deeply elusive, rocker cat Angus (Izzard, in a role, I assume, originally offered to Russell Brand), Bodi dreams of going to the city to live as a musician. Khampa doesn’t believe in him, but he reluctantly gives Bodi his blessing anyway.
From there, Bodi meets fellow wannabe rockers Darma (Whitman), Germur (Garcia) and Trey (Dillion) and forms unsuspecting enemies with mafia-esque wolves, led by Linnux (Black). He even makes Angus’ acquaintance! But, of course, Angus wants nothing to do with yet another adoring fan who wishes to collaborate, especially with his newest music deadline wasting away by the hour. But when Angus realizes Bodi possibly has what it takes, the musician plans to profit off that raw talent.
Rock Dog is a broad, genial family outing that isn’t ugly nor pretty, exciting nor boring. It’s dull, yes, but only in the sense that it doesn’t become anything more than what it ultimately is, which is a generic — if rather expensive — feature-length adaptation of the Chinese graphic novel Tibetan Rock Dog by Zheng Zin. Much like The Great Wall, it’s interesting to see Hollywood merge the gap between Chinese and American audiences, but when the output is as wishy-washy, forgettable and lackadaisical (which is becoming one of my new favorite words) as Rock Dog, does it really matter?
The voice is fine enough, if unremarkable, with only Black, Simmons and Elliott, as Fleetwood Yak (did I mention that yet?), making an impression. Wilson’s gives the titular rock ‘n’ roll pooch an excitable, enthusiastic inner life that’s appealing, but he isn’t given a lot of room to do much. The animation is better than you’d expect, admittedly, but it’s still not that good, with one or two semi-inventive sequences — including one centered around the discovery of music that’s actually kinda trippy, but in a good way, like a subpar Doctor Strange — that are more visually interesting than the animation quality allows, despite the healthy budget. The backdrops are okay. They don’t really stand out, but they’re better than Norm of the North, at least. The story, again, isn’t horrible, but it’s too perfunctory to get you invested, even though it’s about a dog playing some rock ‘n’ roll music.
It’s fun to joke about Rock Dog. The title alone is a punchline that still delivers a chuckle. But it’s a lot more fun to joke about Rock Dog than it is to actually delve into Rock Dog, because it’s not much of anything, for better or worse. It’s a plain, by-the-numbers dogpile of tired tropes, underwhelming storytelling and mostly half-hearted voice performances. It makes The Secret Life of Pets look like a classic. Rock Dog is more comfortable with rolling with the punches than actually rocking the boat. Even if it features a character that, adorably, is named Fleetwood Yak. How is that even possible?