Did anyone working on the cheap-looking animated film Rock Dog ever stop to consider the fact that the dog of the title never rocks? He fights a grizzly bear in a cage match. He harnesses ancestral magic powers. He leaves behind his Himalayan-looking mountain village for the big city after a radio falls out of the clouds. He learns a lesson about… something. (This last point is fuzzy.) Those might qualify as “rock ’n’ roll” in a different context—well, perhaps not the part about learning a lesson. But rocking out in any widely accepted sense of the term? The dog doesn’t as much as plug in an electric guitar. There is a scene where he trudges around in the rain to Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” which is commonly considered a rock song, and while it’s a very strange moment for an otherwise unremarkable kids’ movie, it isn’t very rock ’n’ roll, is it? And as far as rock-star behavior is concerned, forget about it. This acoustic-guitar-strumming, sherpa-wearing canine is strictly a nice guy, with zero ego. He does go looking for a rock star, a small white cat with a pair of sunglasses permanently fixed to his face. But the title of the movie is Rock Dog. With a product this generic, one at least expects it to do what it says on the tin.
The fact is that the feline guitar hero Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard) is the most interesting thing about Rock Dog, if only because there’s more novelty in watching a kids’ movie about a bored, prickly, middle-aged British rock star trudging around his huge, Beverly Hills-esque mansion than about another harmless furry thing who needs to find his own way, yada yada yada. The animation is substandard: flat, deserted, like a direct-to-streaming title pushed on parents by a Netflix algorithm. But at least the high-security Scattergood residence lends itself to a kind of emptiness and makes for a few decent visual gags, which briefly turn Rock Dog into something like a kiddie-fied This Must Be The Place, with Sean Penn’s homebody goth superstar recast as a house cat. But again, the title is Rock Dog (is it supposed to be a play on words or more of a Boss Baby situation?), which means that the brunt of the story falls on Bodi (Luke Wilson)—a blandly inoffensive character, so long as one doesn’t think too hard about the fact that he is a Tibetan mastiff in a Chinese-American coproduction.
Having discovered music, Bodi ventures into a multi-species animal metropolis, where he befriends musicians (Mae Whitman, Jorge Garcia), is pursued by the head of the wolf mafia (Lewis Black), and pesters Scattergood about the secrets of rock ’n’ roll. The movie almost lucks into a plot about halfway through, when the ax-slinging cat and his would-be student get locked out of the former’s mansion, forcing them to busk for change. That could be a movie. But sadly, it’s just one of the half dozen interchangeable, abruptly resolved, and under-visualized episodes that mark Bodi’s journey back home, where his father (J.K. Simmons) has been left to defend the local population of defenseless sheep on his own. Director Ash Bannon is a Pixar veteran who hasn’t made a movie since Surf’s Up, a mockumentary entry in the mid-2000s mania for all things penguin. One might be inclined to view Rock as a low-rent Zootopia or Sing. Having apparently blown its budget on celebrity voices, it has little to show beyond uninspiring and unimaginative city backdrops populated with cloned extras. There aren’t even many songs—and no point beyond having something sellable that kids will run around to and parents can half-watch.