‘Rock Dog’ Is A Bad Bootleg, Save For Eddie Izzard
A musician dog with kung fu powers manages to be boring.
Let’s start talking about Rock Dog by talking about its impossible-to-ignore predecessor, Kung Fu Panda 3. That sequel was the first major feature-length American-Chinese animated co-production. Rock Dog, based on the graphic novel “Tibetan Rock Dog” by Chinese rock star Zheng Jun, is a Chinese-American co-production which has some nuanced differences from an American-Chinese production, but effectively just means that when the Rock Dog gets to a city, everything’s in Chinese and there’s no explanation while everyone continues to speak English in various accents.
Furthering the Kung Fu Panda comparison, the animal-based plot embodies the same pseudo-wuxia as the Jack Black vehicle. Bodi (voice of Luke Wilson) the Rock Dog may not use martial arts, but he carries an axe (the kind of axe where you make devil horns with your fingers that is) and discovers his mystical fighting powers on a sensei-seeking journey. Bodi’s father (voice of J.K. Simmons) is a literal watchdog guarding a Tibetan mountain town full of sheep from villainous predatory wolves. In a Sam Elliott voiceover (he plays a yak named Fleetwood Yak – it’s the funniest joke in the film), we learn the town’s past: Bodi’s fire-blasting father shoots the wolves away with some sort of kung fu dog magic out of his paws. The wolves, chastised, fled. Preparing for future attacks, the father crafts an army of wooden replicas of himself that the fuzzy denizens of the town can wear as intimidation. He also begins training Bodi in the ways of military defense, but Bodi only wants to jam.
A son not wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, an impending attack on a village, and an impossible dream – that Kung Fu Panda comparison seems more apt now, right? Before Bodi’s inevitable escape from his community to chase his dream, we are interminably immersed in its simple stupidity.
The off-putting, Minion-like sheep are comedy black holes, without the minor anarchic charm of those anthropomorphic Twinkies because they simply don’t have the personality. The only one strange enough to repeat is one that’s always showering. After so long wrangling morons, we’re with Bodi: he should get the hell outta there.
Then in an on-the-nose deus ex machina (a machine literally falls from the sky), Bodi finds a radio playing rock n’ roll. Bodi’s first experience with rock could be an immersive visual feat, a chance for creativity the likes of a Disney musical rather than the rounded, textureless TV animation exactly like animator Reel FX’s Free Birds. The scene plays out like Bodi intruding on a boring iTunes visualizer, neither trippy enough to shock nor beautiful enough to inspire awe. After experiencing this milquetoast revelation, Bodi convinces his father to let him give rock stardom a shot and runs off to the big city…scored to Foo Fighters’ “Learn To Fly” of course.
It’s here we meet the best character in the film and the only reason to even consider seeing it: rock legend Angus Scattergood (voice of Eddie Izzard).
Scattergood is a slim cat dressed in all black that owns a robot butler, a terrifying hedge maze guarded by giant robotic mice, and an electrified fence. Izzard not only gets to deliver the best lines in the film (finding humor and sadness in lonesome stardom), he pegs a great delivery style between his normal erudition and the smug self-assuredness of Ricky Gervais or Russell Brand. He’s also an aural relief after listening to Luke Wilson’s strained old pipes pretend to be a breathy child for so long. Wilson, 45, has to affect a “gee-whiz” vocal style that erases any hope for nuance in his performance. Childishness comes first, then delivery.
Speaking of underdeveloped characters, Bodi meets a few street musicians in a park upon arrival in the city: Darma (voice of Mae Whitman), Germur (voice of Jorge Garcia), and Trey (Matt Dillon). Trey exists to poo-poo Bodi’s talent but looks distractingly like if Chester Cheeto went through a Sex Pistols phase. His Wikipedia description is particularly delightful, especially since he has ~30 seconds of screen time: “Like the best schoolyard basketball players, his great talent on the electric guitar is overshadowed by his inability to play well with others.”
Darma serves no purpose besides being the film’s only female (I’d say thank the Chinese co-production for that, but America is just as misogynist). Germur is a bad series of stoner jokes in a movie aimed at kids too young to understand, for parents that just want to go home.
Luckily for them, the film is short. Only an hour and twenty minutes of semi-cohesive plot (including a dropped thread about Scattergood’s exploitation once he discovers Bodi’s songwriting talents) climaxes when the bumbling wolves who’ve been chasing Bodi finally catch him. These wolves seem to run the mob, full of surveillance and prizefighting rackets, and see capturing Bodi as their leverage for attacking his village. These wolves are almost as dumb as the sheep, yet the slapstick is minimal and the verbal gags trite.
Will Bodi discover his secret dog kung fu magic? I bet you already forgot about that particular aspect in this absurd movie. It’s a crazy premise without any of the carnivalesque anarchy needed to back it up. Rock Dog sinks like a stone.