Just a week after “The Great Wall,” the big-budget Chinese (but largely English-language) action spectacle hit U.S. theatres, comes “Rock Dog,” an animated kids’ movie from China—also in English, at least in this version—based on a “graphic novel” by a mainland singer-songwriter. Both pictures show that the cross-Pacific industry has learned many of the lessons that Hollywood has to teach—most of them dreary clichés—and this one was, moreover, directed by an American with experience at Disney and Sony Animation (unlike “Wall,” which was helmed by Zhang Yimou). But the result is still pretty flat, and unlikely to entrance even the smallest American fry.
The mercifully brief computer-animated tale, adapted from “Tibetan Rock Dog” by Zheng Jun, concerns a young Tibetan mastiff called Bodi (voiced by Luke Wilson) who lives with his father Khampa (J.K. Simmons), the gruff watchdog guarding a village of haplessly goofy sheep on Snow Mountain. After a raid on the place by wolves led by the odious Linnux (Lewis Black) nearly succeeds, Khampa banishes all music from the town, considering it a distraction from the necessary work of constant vigilance and defense. But Bodi’s love of strumming a guitar is rekindled when a passing plane drops a radio from the sky, and he determines to go to the city and become a rock star; eventually Khampa, under prodding from wise old town elder Fleetwood Yak (Sam Elliott), agrees to let the pup go, but only under the condition that if things don’t work out, he’ll come back to Snow Mountain and follow in his father’s paw-steps.
Bodi’s adventures in the big city eventually involve him not only with a struggling band composed of an arrogant leopard named Trey (Matt Dillon), a sweet fox named Darma (Mae Whitman) and a woozy goat named Gemur (Jorge Garcia), but with a reclusive rock idol, a scrawny cat called Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard). In fact, he eventually becomes a sort of muse to Angus, who’s suffering from writer’s block and needs to compose a hit single fast. Unfortunately, Bodi is also being stalked by Linnux’s inept henchman Riff (Kenan Thompson), who’s tasked with capturing him so the boss can extract information to allow him to circumvent Khampa’s defenses and take over the village. For some reason a subplot has to do with pro wrestling; it’s not only intrusive but falls flat.
The basic problem with the movie is that it’s terminally bland, the script lacking any sense of surprise or suggestion of edginess; adults will find it utterly predictable, but even tykes are likely to react to the “follow your dream” message with a ho-hum attitude. The animation by Reel FX (whose previous effort was the scrawny “Free Birds”) is no better than okay, with unimpressive backgrounds and character animation that’s unimaginative, with only Angus coming across as unusual. (There’s even a cute robot added to the mix, for no particular reason other than that kids like robots.) And though the voice cast has some starry names in it, their work is fundamentally pedestrian, though Izzard manages a few hints of sarcasm and Black does insert some of his patented hysteria into his line readings. The picture isn’t really a musical, but there are a few interludes of song and instrumental playing; they’re uniformly anemic.
“The Great Wall” was a financial smash in China but a bust in the U.S. “Rock Dog” bombed in China, and isn’t likely to score here either. Back to the drawing board.