March 1, 2017

Rock Dog is Good-Natured, but Falters

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Here’s a little number that’s stayed on the sidelines. From Ash Brannon, who directed Surf’s Up and co-directed Toy Story 2, comes Rock Dog. I didn’t know a whole lot about this movie, so I did some reading on it; oh boy, did I have to really dig on this one.  The film is based on Tibetan Rock Dog, a 2009 graphic novel released by Chinese songwriter Zheng Jun. According to my sources, an animated film adaptation was in the works as early as 2009; that’s eight years of production! Rock Dog is a big deal, though, because it’s one of the first Chinese-financed films to be produced in the United States, specifically at Reel FX. Four different companies receive credit for financing the production, and I tried diving into all of them.

There’s Mandoo Pictures, that “seeks to revolutionize entertainment… with its unique Sino-American sensibility,”  and seems to combine Chinese culture with Hollywood production resources. It also claims that Rock Dog is due out in 2015, so it’s a bit outdated. Then there’s Huayi Tencent Entertainment, controlled by both Huayi Brothers Media (the largest private film company in China) and Tencent Holdings (a Chinese multimedia company). Funnily enough, Huayi Tencent Entertainment itself is registered in the Cayman Islands. The third company, Eracme Entertainment, seems invisible. I found an article saying that they were planning a separate movie… in 2015. Finally, there’s Dream Factory Group, or rather, there isn’t one that I can find information about. The closest I came was an advertising agency in Florida. All four companies have only Rock Dog in their filmographies. On top of this murky past comes a story of corporate struggles and revenge, that resulted in Rock Dog bombing in its home country by only being shown a total of seven times.

I bring up this whole mess because there are a lot of individual producers. I mean, a lot of them. Between executive producers and co-producers and associate producers and just straight-up “producers,” twenty people were at the helm of Rock Dog. Sadly, it shows. While the movie still carries charm, it just has too many trappings and issues to be taken seriously.

The movie focuses on Bodi, a young Tibetan mastiff voiced by Luke Wilson who lives in a village called Snow Mountain. Snow Mountain is inhabited entirely by sheep, excepting his father Khampa (J.K. Simmons) and the leader Fleetwood Yak (Sam Elliott). Khampa has dedicated himself to protecting the village from the threat of the sinister wolves, who wish to devour the sheep. He wishes Bodi to follow in his footsteps, to the point of banning music from Snow Mountain to avoid distractions. However, when a radio falls from a passing airplane, Bodi discovers a craving for music and dreams of becoming a rock star like his newly-found idol, Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard). The young mastiff ends up traveling to the big city to follow his passion, not realizing that Angus has hit a creative roadblock of his own. Meanwhile, the wolves decide to take the opportunity to make their move.

To start off, the animation is pretty good, considering the budget. At $60 million, Rock Dog had less to work with than even Illumination movies do, and they’re kings of low-budget animation nowadays. The character designs are very good, almost plush in feeling. We can also see Ash Brannon’s expertise come into play, with some nice shots and sequences. When Bodi first discovers the radio, there’s a scene where he imagines himself in a blank space with the music visualized as colors dance around him. It’s a nice sequence that really stood out to me. The animation also helps deliver the visual humor well, providing enough impact to make the slapstick effective.  Visually, the animators and story artists have done a good job.

The writing itself is a mixed bag, sadly. Let’s do the positives first: the main characters, Bodi and Angus, are both enjoyable. I enjoyed watching the dog’s unbridled enthusiasm grate against the cat’s cynicism, and they have a fun dynamic. Khampa also manages to be stern and tough without becoming mean-spirited. He genuinely cares about his son, but also worries about the future of the village.  All the voice actors deliver good performances, especially Eddie Izzard. Izzard’s delivery makes us believe he’s a rock star who’s gotten too comfortable on his laurels, and elicited the most laughs from me. Unfortunately, a lot of the other characters feel extraneous. A duo of wolves constantly try to kidnap Bodi, but they constantly fail to slapstick antics. It makes the threat of the wolves feel laughable while not really advancing the plot. There’s a fox and a goat (I think it’s a goat?) who feature in the promos but don’t really have a big impact on the story. Honestly, if they had cut out the comedic wolves and strengthened the fox and goat, it would have made the story more powerful.

As for the plot itself… well, it doesn’t offer very many surprises. From the set-up I gave you in the beginning, you can probably guess most of the main beats with few deviations. It’s not fundamentally broken, but if you ask too many questions the story doesn’t hold up. For example, Khampa has a magic mastiff death punch that he wants Bodi to learn, until Bodi learns to unlock it through music. No other animals demonstrate magic though, and it’s not really discussed in their society. Is it some ancient art? Are only mastiffs magic? Or another conundrum: Bodi seems fairly comfortable with the concept of airplanes and buses and other electronic equipment. So why does he seem mystified by the radio that falls from the sky, calling it a “magic music box”? Or the scene where the wolf mafia (yes, they’re a mafia) kidnap Angus Scattergood by accident, believing him to be Bodi… and end up releasing him. I mean, my only experience with organized crime comes from reading/watching The Godfather, but I’m pretty sure that even if you’d kidnapped a big name star by accident, you’d take advantage of the ransom potential.  Speaking of the wolves, they just go all over the place. They start out as these vicious predators that we’re supposed to fear, but then turn into the aforementioned mafia-parody slapstick oafs. Then, at the climax of the movie, they storm the sheep village, and it’s insinuated they are going to serve the cooked village members to Khampa and the yak elder as a humiliation and terror tactic. That’s “Silence Of The Lambs” level of messed up. It just creates a jarring effect as the antagonists go from menacing to comical to psychopathic over the course of only limited screentime. In fact, at the very end it seems that they reach a truce where they agree to befriend Khampa and the others? Quite a turnaround from wanting to eat someone to working together.

Rock Dog’s story has a lot of flaws. However, the very core of it still beats pretty true. The basics of the story are there: we know why Bodi wants to be a musician, we know the obstacles he has to face, and it’s still endearing to watch him relentlessly pursue his goal. His arc is the heart of the film, and that much is pretty solid. It’s just the meat of the world-building and the supporting characters who end up falling apart. As for the humor, it’s not a laugh-a-minute movie, but most of the gags got a chuckle out of me, and none of them made me groan. There was just one part where Bodi found himself in a wrestling ring thanks to the wolf mafia, and he turned to the ropes only to have them turn into a cage… I still don’t understand why? My only reasoning was that it was supposed to be a gag, even though it made no sense. Again though, most of them did well enough to evoke humor from me.

Rock Dog has a lot of plusses and minuses, but in the end… I enjoyed it more than I disliked it. There’s just something charming about it. I think it’s the fact that it comes from one culture trying to reach to a new audience, and you can feel the heart and soul being put into it. It just got stuck in production hell. Sure, it’s not a breakout movie for any of the players involved, but it’s certainly better than something like The Angry Birds Movie. If you have small children, or you’re looking for a gentler time, it makes for a relaxed and harmless time.

David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]