The second Chinese-American co-production to hit U.S. theaters in as many weeks, the animated feature “Rock Dog” arrives one week after the release of “The Great Wall.” Director Ash Brannon helms this adaptation of Zheng Jun’s graphic novel, “Tibetan Rock Dog,” which mixes Tibetan culture with contemporary Brit-rock, and adds a splash of mob movies for kicks.
We start in a village on Snow Mountain, where a mastiff, Bodi (Luke Wilson), and his dad, Khampa (J.K. Simmons), are tasked with guarding a bunch of addled sheep from a pack of hungry wolves. An opening sequence, rendered in a hand-drawn style, gives a nod to traditional Chinese art and music, and is narrated by a mustachioed Yak, known as Fleetwood Yak, voiced by Sam Elliott.
We’re dropped into this world without much context, and the drawn animation is soon set aside for computer animation. The characters aren’t fully expressive, and the dull environment and settings lack background detail. We’ve become accustomed to animated features with a high joke-density, both visual and written, so “Rock Dog” is a big downshift in energy and content.
Bodi discovers rock music on a radio dropped from a biplane and is soon obsessed with the tunes of Angus Scattergood. After a rift with his father over playing music vs. protecting sheep, Bodi heads for “the city” to find his tribe. He connects with super-cool, super-isolated rocker Angus (Eddie Izzard), a Wayfarered cat. Soon they’re writing songs and eluding capture by the wolves, who are now suited up and organized into a crime syndicate, running cage matches in the city while surveilling Snow Mountain for a chance to chow down on lamb chops.
While a mix of “Zootopia” and “Sing!” with hints of “Kung Fu Panda” seems like a great idea, the result is a strange combination. While those films created rich worlds, cultures and subcultures for anthropomorphic animals, there’s just not enough on the screen to buy into “Rock Dog.” It doesn’t gel and lacks the kind of visual kinetics and energy we’ve come to expect.
Each scenario is more tortured and far-fetched than the last. It’s unclear why Bodi and his father have to guard the sheep. They have magical mastiff powers that they are able to harness, but those powers are never fully articulated. Khampa runs Snow Mountain village like John Lithgow in “Footloose” — no music ever! Too dangerous. But that’s never fleshed out. Besides, if these wolves have cage-fighting to tend to, why would they want to eat the sheep on the mountain? The period, setting and characters don’t make sense.
“Rock Dog” makes for an inoffensive afternoon at the movies, and Angus is an inspired creation, but you won’t be itching to re-watch it anytime soon — there’s not enough there to inspire any passion.
Rated PG for action and language. 1:20. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.