Any film critic worth their salt goes into every movie with the hope that it will be good. Actual critics who get access to press screenings are spared the burden of pre-film trailers. The rest of us are not, which means I was subjected to the idiotic marketing for Rock Dog. I went into the film with my arms metaphorically crossed, prepared for the worst. Not only is Rock Dog not bad, but it’s actually pretty good — the first genuine surprise of 2017.
Bodi (Luke Wilson) is a mastiff, born into the responsibility of defending the sheep denizens of Tibet-esque Snow Mountain from the onset of hungry wolves. His father, Khampa (JK Simmons), wants to prepare him to take the lead, but Bodi is more interested in becoming a musician, which Khampa outlawed, Footloose-style, after the noise attracted predators. Fleetwood Yak (Sam Elliott), the local wise man, convinces Khampa to let his son pursue his dream, so Bodi makes for the City to look for his idol, Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard), a rock music legend. Meanwhile, the wolves, led by Linnux (Lewis Black), get wind that a mastiff has left the mountain, so he sets his goons to pursue Bodi and launch another attack.
It’s important to understand that Rock Dog is only 80 minutes long, and it is a damn good thing it is. The plot chugs along at a quick pace, leaving little room for any real characterization beyond what the voice actors can provide, and the stakes consequently feel low. What Rock Dog lacks in narrative thrust it makes up for in silliness and charm. The animation, though basic in comparison to its big-budget brethren, is clean and simple, free of the eye-blistering color of films like Trolls. Its tone is also quiet — more chill than you would expect from a movie aimed at children. You can tell the filmmakers, led by director Ash Brannon, wanted to channel the sublime creative thrill felt by productive musicians.
Izzard, as the over-the-hill rock star, gives the best vocal performance of the film. He brings his characteristic bluster and fuddy-duddiness to the role when a lot less is expected of a movie like this. Unfortunately, every other character is cast solidly to type: Wilson is self-effacing, Simmons brash, Elliott folksy, Black angry. The supporting cast is filled out by performers like Mae Whitman, Jorge Garcia, and Matt Dillon, with Garcia a highlight as a burned-out goat drummer. Oddly, Whitman is the only actress in the named cast, when many of the parts could easily have been female.
I don’t want to oversell Rock Dog, because it is slight and mostly forgettable. It certainly won’t make the shortlist at next year’s Oscars. It stands as a surprisingly pleasant children’s film when so many signs pointed to it being completely insufferable. Catch it when it comes on Netflix with your kids.
Animation | Summit Entertainment