"ROCK DOG" — 2 stars — Voices of Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard, J.K. Simmons, Mae Whitman, Lewis Black, Sam Elliott; PG (action and language); in general release
The biggest problem with mediocre animation isn't that the movies are mediocre. It's that the filmmakers are expecting you to buy tickets for the whole family.
There's a big difference between a movie that can justify one ticket and one that can justify several, and this is one of the core problems with "Rock Dog," a so-so animated adventure about a sheep dog who leaves his mountain home to follow his rock 'n' roll dreams.
Bodi (voiced by Luke Wilson) is a Tibetan Mastiff with a dilemma. He wants to be a musician, but his father Khampa (J.K. Simmons) wants him to focus on protecting the local flock of sheep from a gang of wolves who dress like Mafioso.
The sheep dogs used to be into music, but after a particularly nasty battle with the wolves, Khampa hid all their instruments away. Because there are so few dogs in their mountain village, Khampa makes several sheep dress in dog costumes to convince the wolves that an army is waiting for them, so you can understand some of his motivation. But Bodi is determined, and with the help of a wise yak named Fleetwood (Sam Elliott), he eventually prevails on his father to let him chase his dreams in the big city.
Swap out a few characters, and you've got the plot of "Moana," another animated hero's journey with a musical theme. Unfortunately, the comparison does not work in "Rock Dog's" favor.
The plot gets going once Bodi arrives in the city. He tries to join a local band and fails spectacularly, then determines to camp out in front of rock star feline Angus Scattergood's (Eddie Izzard) mansion until he agrees to grant the untrained Mastiff his big break. In this world, paying your dues isn't really a factor.
In the meantime, a pair of wolves followed Bodi to the city because their leader Linnux (Lewis Black) is convinced that capturing Bodi is the key to getting at the sheep. Linnux's day job is as a fight promoter, and it's unclear why he and his pack are so interested in the flock of sheep that lives far away up in the mountains.
Of course, Bodi eventually wins an audience with Angus, and themes about determination and self-realization are lost in a plot that tries to mash together threads about Bodi helping Angus to record a hit song while Khampa tries to handle the threat of the wolves. Kids can handle complexity as long as there's still a sense of focus, but all the talking and fidgeting going on at "Rock Dog's" promo screening suggests that focus didn't make it into the final cut.
It would help if so many jokes didn't fall flat and if the animation were a little more engaging — a creative 2-D prologue is so striking that it makes the rest of the movie feel stock by comparison. And speaking of stock, for a movie about the spirit of rock 'n' roll, director Ash Brannon rarely turns the amps up beyond a three.
"Rock Dog" has its moments, and with a rewrite or two, might have justified itself. But as is, it's too milquetoast and too much of a mess to compete against the better options at the multiplex, unless you can catch it on discount night.
"Rock Dog" is rated PG for action and language; running time: 80 minutes.