Movie Review: China throws a lot of money at “Rock Dog,” lands not a single laugh

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A sheep dog abandons the family business — protecting the flocks of his Tibetan village — to seek fame and power chords in the Big City in “Rock Dog,” a Chinese cartoon based on a Chinese comic book.

How do we know it’s Chinese? Bodi, the strumming/singing Tibetan canine of the title, doesn’t quote the Dalai Lama or wear “Free Tibet” t-shirts.

It’s one of the most expensive movies ever made in China, wholly financed by one of the Chinese studios that also owns Chinese movie theaters. But those conditions, considered an anti-trust violation here in the States, and the fact that they threw a lot of money at a “Toy Story” director and International voice talent for the English language release, don’t save it.

Because there isn’t a laugh in it. Not one. And darned little charm, to boot.

Sam Elliott takes on the same role he played in “The Big Lebowkski,” as the drawling sage narrator, here named Fleetwood Yak (Haw!), telling us the story of Bodi (Luke Wilson), whose dad (J.K. Simmons) has figured out the best way to keep the wolves at bay — train the village of sheep to wear armored dog suits.

But the moment Bodi picks up a stringed instrument, he has other interests. And the moment a portable radio drops into his life, he has his own dream. He wants to develop some chops, visit the city, go to Rock and Roll Park where the rock buskers play and form a band.

He wants to be just like his new hero, a cat named Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard).

“Find the passion, the fire inside,” Fleetwood Yak counsels. And Bodi has. He sets out to study under the master, Angus. But along the way, he runs afoul of a competitor guitarist (Matt Dillon) who owns him in a shredding contest, a fighting bear and the wolf mob boss (Lewis Black) who longs to get his paws on every thing Bodi holds dear, especially that village of sheep where the young dog comes from.

rock2Director Ash Brannon (“Surf’s Up”) and a slew of credited co-writers could not uncover a laugh in this material. Not a one-liner, not one single sight gag pays off. The animation is generic, but pretty enough. The music? Sort of a Chinese market research idea of “rock.”

You can’t really tell it’s Owen Wilson doing Bodi’s voice. Simmons sputters and fails to register. Kenan Thompson and Jorge Garcia do two sidekick voices, in the interest of diversifying the cast. Only Lewis Black, doing a few of his trademark meltdowns, comes close to finding a laugh.

And he’ll be a lot funnier telling the story, in stand-up routines or on talk shows, of how he took Chinese cash and giggled all the way to the bank making this made-by-a-committee-of-market-analysts disaster.

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MPAA Rating: PG for action and language

Cast: The voices of Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard, J.K. Simmons, Lewis Black, Mae Whitman, Jorge Garcia, Kenan Thompson, Sam Elliott, Matt Dillon

Credits:Directed by Ash Brannon, script by Ash Brannon, based on the comic book. A Summit release.

Running time: 1:20

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