Does Rock Dog turn it up to 11? Read our movie review to find out:
Oh, how I was pulling for Rock Dog. In a market crowded with animated features vying for the spotlight for all the attention and box office, it’s the smaller animated films that become easily lost in the shuffle.
It’s not so much that this was a cheap production given that it was produced by the Reel FX studio (The Book of Life) on a budget of $60 million with much Chinese backing. But the movie feels smaller in that there are no big names and that it’s a relatively original story. Well, about as original as one can get in a movie with anthropomorphized characters. And while I was surprised by how well most of the movie plays out, I still couldn’t help but feel it was missing something to make it really sing.
A Tibetan Mastiff by the name of Bodi (Luke Wilson) desires to be a guitarist within his mountainside Tibetan village. His dreams are put on hold, however, as his protective father Khampa (J.K. Simmons) has high hopes for him to continue the family tradition of protecting the village full of sheep (literal) from the aggressive forces of threatening wolves (also literal). But when Bodi discovers a radio that drops into his village, he becomes inspired by the rock music in an overblown moment of transcendence. As with any kid bitten by the inspirational bug, he commits himself more to becoming a musician than mastering his father’s martial arts of shooting energy blasts at wolf enemies. A Kung Fu Panda plot just doesn’t suit his tastes.
His dad reluctantly agrees to let him go to the city to prove himself and his passion. Bodi appears overly chipper and optimistic about his musical journey that his smiling expression rarely changes, even in the demystifying moments of experiencing the city life. He’s so sure of his success that I doubt a mugger could have wiped the stupid grin off his face. This overconfidence comes in handy for trying to convince the rich rock star cat Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard) to take him on as a student. Angus is insulting, selfish and crippled with a lack of creative juices to finish his single, but the persistent insistence of Bodi eventually convinces him to let him into his home and his studio. How could he not take on someone so willing to take multiple beatings from a security system of electric fences and giant robotic mice?
The film works best with its two leads playing off of each other. Bodi’s endless supply of enthusiasm goes well with Angus’ passive scathing. As much as it’s hard to hate Bodi for his passion, it’s tough to despise Angus as the selfish celebrity that learns a lesson. He’s a bit of a hermit in that he rarely speaks to anyone outside his spacious mansion, but he seems to hold down conversations well enough with his silent robot butler (even when he’s offline). So vocal, physical and conflicted is this character that I’m surprised the movie wasn’t called Rock Cat. Or do cats not sell as well as dogs?
The most admirable aspect about Rock Dog is how it never seems to go for the easiest jokes. There are no animal-centric gags where Bodi plays fetch or Angus sits on a litter box. This script would much rather be about characters and actually finds more humor in the dialogue than I expected. Some of them are even pleasant throwbacks to such gags as honking traffic to cover up a curse word.
And for being a movie about music, there’s no instantly recognizable pop songs inserted. Bodi’s first stop on his city tour is a park of competing street musicians, each with their own style/genre and none of them doing silly renditions of familiar songs. True, this may make the film less memorable as its melodies are not exactly earworms, but after being bombarded with the pop music selections of Sing, it’s nice to finally hear something that hasn’t been blasted to death on the radio.
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