Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
2017, 90 min., Color
Animated comedy
Rated PG for action and language
Summit Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Preferred audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Rock Dog, a Chinese-American collaboration, is a better-than-you’d-think animated feature. It’s a true family movie with the potential to appeal to a wide range of ages. The characters are engaging, the animation is top-notch, and the story . . . well, if it worked in Kung Fu Panda, why wouldn’t it here?

Rather than a Panda who hears a different drummer, this time it’s a Tibetan mastiff that can’t quite bring himself to follow in his father’s footsteps as a guard dog of a village of sheep up on Snow Mountain. With a gang of hungry and opportunistic wolves ready to attack, a single dog following his ancestral tradition isn’t enough. The father (J.K. Simmons) needs his son, and he also needs “scarecrows”—a bunch of sheep dressed to look like mastiffs from a distance—in order to keep the wolves at bay.

Bodi (Luke Wilson) would rather play music, but since music was banned because it was a distraction, he defiantly breaks into the “hold” where confiscated instruments are stored and begins teaching himself how to play a traditional stringed instrument. But when a radio falls from the sky and Bodi discovers the delights of rock music, he modifies that instrument to create his own six-string acoustic guitar and finally gets his father’s reluctant blessing to head to the city to follow his dream of becoming a musician.

We’re not supposed to question why we’re unable to get radio reception driving on some roads, but high in the Himalayas everything comes in crystal clear. And we’re not supposed to wonder why character actor Sam Elliott was chosen to play the narrator Fleetwood Yak, since this is set in Asia and Elliott’s unmistakable Western drawl situates us immediately in the American West. Above all, we’re not supposed to question mastiff’s “Iron Paw” defense—a laser-cannon blast of energy that emits from the mastiff’s paws—and later, young Bodi’s musical variation of it. Director Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2, Surf’s Up) knows that if the writing and story are strong enough and the characters are strong enough, audiences will relax and just enjoy the movie.

Wilson does a fine job as the lead character, but the show-stealer is feline rock ‘n’ roll legend Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard). Almost every scene involving Bodi and Angus is shot full of energy and interest, and you can see it in their interaction that they were the most fun for writers to bring alive. Don’t expect much in the way of sideplots, though. A wannabe successful band—featuring a warm-hearted bass-playing fox named Darma (Mae Whitman), a slightly goofy goat drummer named Germur (Jorge Garcia), and an arrogant snow leapard guitarist named Trey (Matt Dillon)—has almost as little to do as TV mothers in the old father-centric sitcoms. But the real fun begins when Trey pranks Bodi into finding Scattergood and asking him to be his teacher and he leaves that group temporarily behind. Even a kidnapping involving the wolf gang led by Linnux (a mobster type who also is a fight-club owner) isn’t as much fun as the Bodi/Angus scenes—though, of course, the kids will like the infusion of action. In the end, though, it’s another tale of following your dreams and finding parental acceptance in the process.

Rock Dog is based on a graphic novel (Tibetan Rock Dog) by Chinese rock star Zheng Jun and with a $60 million production budget it ranks as the most costly animated film ever produced by Chinese. As I said, the production values are terrific, the script (though familiar) doesn’t sag anywhere, the characters are likeable, the action is sufficient, and the music is an upbeat bonus. It is, in other words, much better than you’d expect for a film that did not do well at the box office in China and drew a 39 percent “rotten” rating at RottenTomatoes.com.

Language: Some name calling and scattered use of “bloody” as a euphemistic swearword
Sex: Zero
Violence: Not much—just some wolves shot with a tranquilizer, a dog fighting a grizzly, and a cat being hit with a baseball bat, all for comic effect
Adult situations: Nothing really
Takeaway: The skills are here, but the filmmakers need an original idea and script to take it to the next level

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