“Rock Dog” benefits from the central rule of kid-friendly filmmaking: If you have children under the age of 9, the best movie they’ve ever seen is almost always the most recent one.
Too lackluster to be praised highly, yet too benign to be excoriated, “Rock Dog” is the perfect family film for a rainy day with no other options. It does not deserve mention in any animation history book, and yet it’s completely satisfactory in the moment. This is the answer to the question, “We’ve seen ‘Lego Batman’ three times already. Is there anything else in theaters?”
If all of the above sounds like faint praise, then I have succeeded in my goal. Some films “Rock Dog” is better than: All of the “Ice Age” sequels, both “The Smurfs” movies and three out of four entries in the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” franchise.
Based on a Chinese graphic novel, “Rock Dog” borrows from “Kung Fu Panda” and “Ratatouille” so heavily and equally that it feels like those movies gave birth to a slightly underachieving cinematic child. Bodi (voiced by Luke Wilson) is a sheep dog living on a mountain, where his kind defend their flock with mystical powers. But his true love is music, to the shame of his father (J.K. Simmons). He heads for the city to seek tutelage from aging rock star Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard) — who is in need of his own creative jumpstart.
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“Rock Dog” is a low-wattage production, just 80 minutes long, and distributed in the U.S. by Lionsgate a year after it bombed in China. But it has an established writer/director in Ash Brannon, who once worked on several Pixar classics and co-directed the excellent “Surf’s Up.”
“Rock Dog” has some of the quirky touches of that film, including enjoyable early scenes in the mountains, where the sheep dress up like dogs to fool coyotes, and Bodi gets a rock education from a radio that falls from the sky. Sam Elliott, as a wise yak named Fleetwood, proves once again that he should contribute a voice-over to every movie, regardless of genre, until the end of time.
There’s less success once Bodi arrives in the city, and the TV commercial-quality visuals and character design start to show their seams. (A leopard voiced by Matt Dillon never escapes the prison of his resemblance to Chester Cheetah from the Cheetos advertisements.) The last act forces together a moral about artistic expression and a save-the-village battle, as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide whether to crib the resolution of “Kung Fu Panda” or “Ratatouille,” so they just tried to do both at the same time.
It’s a mess, but a pleasant one. This will be some child’s favorite animated comedy — at least until the next one comes along.
Rated PG. Time: 1:20.