Sometimes you just don’t know what you are getting. When family animations fly around as fast and furiously as they do nowadays, often you end up with stuff that is simply intolerable, other stuff that is magical and then the usual bog standard offerings in-between. However, there is another category, away from Pixar, Ghibli and Academy Award nominations, the films that reside here make home on un-groundbreaking but unshakably charming foundations. Films like Igor, The House of Magic and A Monster in Paris. These films often borrow elements from other bigger hits and are what many would chastise as cliché, forgettable or vastly inferior to the more sophisticated outings that they draw inspiration from. However, in there own little way, they are little crystals to be found and enjoyed by certain family audiences, flaws and all, amidst the stream of the genre and now the surprisingly delightful Rock Dog joins this crowd.
This Chinese-American production is hitting select cinemas the same time it debuts on Sky Movies Cinema in the UK and in other territories is heading straight to disc. Now this may give off a certain impression about the film and while the more discerning viewers may crave something more ambitious, Rock Dog is a splendidly upbeat and colourful little offering. Based on the graphic novel “Tibetan Rock Dog” by Zheng Jun, the film tells the story of Bodi (Luke Wilson) a Tibetan mastiff who is expected to take over from his stern father Khampa (J.K. Simmons) in guarding the sheep village of Snow Mountain from wolf attack. However when an accidental occurrence rekindles Bodi’s youthful love of music, he aspires to make his own music, unimpressed his father allows him a trip to the city but expects he’ll come running back as failure is all but certain. Indeed rocking is not as easy as it seems and gaining an audience with international rock legend Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard) is even trickier a task but Bodi doesn’t know the meaning of the words “give up”.
Reviews have been rather mixed to sour for this rock infused animated outing and in many ways some criticisms are valid. Writer/Director Ash Brannon and co-writer Kurt Voelker’s screenplay is a heavy blend of plot elements from Kung Fu Panda, Zootropolis and Kubo and the Two Strings, with dollops of Sing on the side. It is a scrappy offering at times and those with heightened expectations will likely shun this perceived “mongrel” in favour of other animated pedigree. However in-between all the familiarity - like the aforementioned The House of Magic - this lower budgeted animation has its heart firmly in the right place and family audiences will have a lovely time in its company.
The visuals are not pushing any new boundaries but are impressive at points, with many moments that feel really comfortable on the big screen. The themes of striving for your art and shaking away cynicism with a smile and a wilful determination are valuable to a young audience, as are some of the other themes of conscience, passion and compassion. It certainly has more going on in its head and music loving heart than the likes of the unlikable The Nut Job, forgettable Norm of the North and big budgeted disappointments like Cars 2, Shrek The Third and Shark Tale. In fact it is brilliantly sweet and enjoyable.
Rock Dog works to amuse and engage its audience for its well paced duration, with moments of mayhem, humour (at the expense of the music industry’s ego and artistic hissyfittery mostly) and most important of all, heart. It is likely that many audiences were expecting a hollow knock-off here but flaws notwithstanding, Rock Dog is a great afternoon’s viewing for kids and adults alike. The characters are warm (Mae Whitman’s rock fox Darma), goofy (the wolf henchmen) and charming (Bodi) and Eddie Izzard is great fun as the feline rock god prima donna Scattergood (with his self-loving portraits, robot servant and house-sized waterbed.
Impressively cast (Sam Elliot plays a character called Fleetwood Yak!) and start to finish charming, this is hardly a competitor to the animated lords (nor does it try to be) but it deserves to join the aforementioned exclusive crop of animated movies that deservedly garner a dedicated audience and fill their brief but welcome running times with an unexpectedly entertain experience. Who doesn’t love seeing an underdog succeed, especially one this kind hearted and fun. A welcome surprise.
ROCK DOG / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: ASH BRANNON / SCREENPLAY: ASH BRANNON, KURT VOELKER / STARRING: LUKE WILSON, EDDIE IZZARD, J.K. SIMMONS, LEWIS BLACK, MAE WHITMAN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (SELECT CINEMAS; SKY CINEMA)