Heading in, it doesn't look like there's going to be much to Rock Dog. To be honest, the same is true coming out. But as slight as it is, the story is sweet and it never quite tips over into cinematic junk food the way many churned-out animated features can.
Based on the graphic novel Tibetan Rock Dog by Chinese rock start Zheng Jun, the movie follows Bodi (Luke Wilson), a Tibetan mastiff who falls in love with rock music and moves to the big city to chase his dream. Of course, this being a rock story, his dad, Khampa (J.K. Simmons), doesn't understand, and wants him to stay on Snow Mountain guarding the sheep. But, with some gentle advice from the town's resident yak, Fleetwood (Sam Elliott), he lets Bodi make a go of it.
Which then leads into the second story arc, as Bodi looks for a band. He meets bassist fox Darma (Mae Whitman) and drummer goat Germur (Jorge Garcia) in a park where aspiring rockers hang out and practice. But their guitarist snow leopard Trey (Matt Dillon) is having nothing of this rube from the sticks and messes with the dopey, eager-to-please dog's head. After a quick "shred-off" humiliation, he points Bodi in the direction of the arrogant and reclusive rock legend Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard).
And that's the third story: Angus just happens to be Bodi's idol, but he lives alone in a giant mansion and hates visitors. He'd just shoo Bodi away -- indeed, he tries to at first -- but he owes his record label a new single, and he thinks maybe the dog can help with overcome his writer's block.
Oh, and then there's the pack of wolves, led by Linnux (Lewis Black), who seem to operate like organized crime within the city, but also have a long-standing desire to invade Snow Mountain and feast on the sheep who live there. But to date they've been held at bay by Khampa's efforts, which brings the stories full circle. Linnux sends his henchman, Riff (Kenan Thompson) to kidnap Bodi and find out something that will help them take the village.
Any one of these arcs could provide the core of a fine little movie, and a pair of them could probably play nicely off of each other. But doing justice to all four would be difficult in any feature, and Rock Dog clocks in at a slim eighty minutes. It feels overstuffed with plot, but none of the plots feel very developed.
Bodi and Darma seem like they're meant to have some sort of proto-romantic arc, but we don't see enough of them together for that to get off the ground. We never see the roots of Angus' isolation, which might give more weight to his interactions with Bodi. Even the wolves' motivations seem haphazard; how do their designs on Snow Mountain fit with their business interests in the city? What's so special to them about Snow Mountain?
All of these questions might, of course, be addressed in the longer form in Zheng's graphic novel. But fitting four major plots and nearly a dozen characters into a single movie seems an impossible task.
On the other hand, Rock Dog doesn't fall back on lazy sterotyping to develop its characters and pander to a young audience's preconceptions. The personalities and situations are canned, sure, but they never seem to reduce a character to a demographic caricature, and that's not nothing. The lessons are doggerel that any adult in the audience has heard a hundred times before, but none of them come packaged with problematic baggage that the screenwriters haven't properly though through. The humor is broad and easy, but it's never propped up by pop culture references or catchphrases, nor overly reliant on scatological references.
In fact, about the only questionable decision is a gag where Angus yells at Bodi, while the horns of passing cars drown out a couple saltier words. It will likely sail over the heads of kids who don't already get it, so I wouldn't be terribly worried. But it does come as a surprise in a movie that's otherwise so benign.
With nothing much to offer adult companions, Rock Dog is hardly an instant classic. The Huayi Brothers have a ways to go before their animation offerings can truly compete with the likes of Disney and Pixar. But there are definitely worse movies out there you could show your kids.
Rating: 3 out of 5