There’s a subtle distinction between movies that are simplified to appeal to children and those that are dumbed down because the filmmakers underestimate their target audience. Rock Dog falls definitively into the latter category. While it’s not as egregiously insulting as last January’s Norm of the North, it does share the same slapped-together animation style, profoundly lazy storytelling and C-list celebrity voice talent intrinsic to the straight-to-video production quality typical of these throwaway releases. As with last week’s release of The Great Wall, Rock Dog is another Chinese-American co-production, and like that film, it’s been engineered to appeal to disparate audiences on opposite ends of the Earth — and similarly, it fails to adequately serve either.
Based on a Chinese graphic novel originally titled Tibetan Rock Dog, this poor excuse for a bargain-bin DVD masquerading as a feature film completely avoids delving into the political subtext of its subject matter in an attempt to placate both children who would be confused by their nation’s policies toward Tibet or the government censors who would have certainly shut down any such commentary out of the gate. The movie follows Bodi (Luke Wilson), a young mastiff whose fate is to take his father’s (J.K. Simmons) place as the lone defender of a small mountain village populated almost exclusively by sheep beset by the historic threat of an inept wolf pack.
But the title of the film is Rock Dog — so there must be some sort of musical element, right? Well, sort of. Bodi is indeed musically inclined, to the extent that his dad has banned music in the village to free his son up for more guard dog training. We know this because Sam Elliott is here to narrate as a character named Fleetwood Yak. Yes, this is a movie in which an entire character’s existence is predicated on a bad pun — and somehow they had enough money to talk Sam Elliott into doing it. Things only get worse from there, as Bodi is introduced to rock music by a radio that falls out of a plane, a bit of deus ex machina that would feel at home in The Gods Must Be Crazy’s unofficial sequel The Dogs Must Be Lazy. From there, he travels to an amorphous amalgam of Tokyo, Hong Kong and New York to seek out the mentorship of a washed-up rock star cat (Eddie Izzard). Now, Izzard and Wilson — these are the kinds of names I expect to see in a movie of this caliber. But Simmons and Elliott? I wish I could say that I was shocked to see stars of their level show up, but disappointed would be far more accurate.
It should be noted that Rock Dog is a movie for kids, and as such, it’s relatively inoffensive. It’s every bit as tepid, uninspired and tedious as its premise would suggest, but so are most modern kids films that aren’t from the bottomless pockets of Disney or Pixar. The fact that director Ash Brannon came from Pixar does nothing to deter the inexorable wave of predictable plotting and paper-thin characterization that is Rock Dog, and only very young viewers with underdeveloped expectations will derive even a modicum of enjoyment from what amounts to little more than an exercise in minimal effort. The best I can say of this film is that it’s relatively short — but in no way is it worth the price of admission when it will certainly show up on streaming services sooner rather than later, meaning you can let your kid sit through it on an iPad and save yourself the suffering. Rated PG for action and language.
Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville