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Film Review: ‘Rock Dog’

Variety logo Variety 2/24/2017 Andrew Barker
© Provided by Variety

For a film in which a Tibetan mastiff with big musical dreams stalks a jaded feline rock star while honing his supernatural martial arts powers and dodging kidnapping attempts from a gang of lupine Mafiosi who run a pro wrestling business on the side, “Rock Dog” is surprisingly uneventful.

Based on a graphic novel by Chinese musician Zheng Jun, this animated Chinese-American co-production cribs freely from “Kung Fu Panda,” “Ratatouille,” “The Muppets,” and “Flashdance,” taking those influences and flattening them out into an easy-listening version of the classic rock star origin story. “Rock Dog” is entirely inoffensive, and its low-key pace and no-frills animation style might come as a bit of a relief in contrast to so many frenetic kids movie spectacles. But taking an ode to the power of musical rebellion and running it through the mill of committee-thinking winds up being no rock and roll fun.

The film’s main premise is not without promise: dropping a naïve country pup named Bodi (Luke Wilson) into the middle of a bustling animal metropolis, where he tries to fit in with the rocker types and gain entry into the antiseptic manse of pampered superstar cat Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard). But as directed by Ash Brannon (whose last feature was the underrated “Surf’s Up”), “Rock Dog” is cluttered with incompatible subplots that never quite seem to belong in the same film.

The confusion begins with the opening credits, as hand-drawn-style animation introduces us to the Tibetan enclave Sheep Mountain, where a hard-nosed warrior-monk guard dog named Khampa (J.K. Simmons) defends a town full of not-so-bright sheep from a wolf attack with his super-powered Deadly Mastiff Paw technique. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, he resolves to keep the wolves at bay by banning all music from the village.

His dreamy young son Bodi isn’t keen on keeping up the ascetic family tradition, especially when a radio falls out of the sky and introduces him to this film’s hazy simulacrum of rock and roll. Bodi builds a makeshift guitar out of an old lute and learns to play, and after initially resisting his son’s artistic inclinations, Khampa soon relents and buys him a bus ticket to the big city to follow his dreams. Meanwhile, alpha wolf Linnux (Lewis Black), still angling to make a mutton meal out of Sheep Mountain, spots the departing Bodi on his surveillance cameras, and dispatches his henchmen to apprehend him.

Once in the city — a strange conflation of New York and Beijing, with billboards in both English and Mandarin — Bodi flubs an audition with a local band, and resolves to seek out his hero Angus for music lessons. Holed up in a home studio with his robot butler, Ozzy, Angus is desperate to cook up a new hit single by the end of the week. After repeatedly rebuffing his aspiring young apprentice, Angus hears Bodi improvising a catchy melody on the street outside, and invites him in to become an uncredited co-writer.

Izzard does the best work among the otherwise unenthusiastic voice cast, placing Angus somewhere between Russell Brand and Noel Gallagher on the louche British peacock scale, and even giving something resembling an edge to lines like “what the fudge-cakes?” But the film’s various narrative strands never manage to harmonize. Supporting characters like Mae Whitman’s bass-playing fox and a C.C. DeVille-esque leopard (Matt Dillon) have been pared down nearly into nonexistence, and the film comes to an end just as it’s about to find its footing.

Compared to the rewind-worthy detail on display in a film like “Zootopia,” “Rock Dog’s” vision of an urban wildlife society is rather barren, and character expressiveness doesn’t reach far beyond primary color emotions. It doesn’t help that so little care seems to have been expended on the film’s musical palette, combining out-of-left-field licensed tunes (Radiohead’s “No Surprises”?) with an overall aesthetic that suggests a Kidz Bop field trip to the Sunset Strip in 1987. If nothing else, “Rock Dog” does allow Sam Elliott to reprise his “Big Lebowski” narration style via a character named Fleetwood Yak — call it second hand gnus.

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