Rock Dog- Not Norm Of The North 2017, but not Zootopia 2017
This has been a long time coming.
The movie? No, not the movie itself, but my review of it. To people who are only reading this review to get to my thoughts on the movie, I suggest skipping my little prologue. For those that would like some context, then read on.
Rock Dog has been on my radar for well over a year, potentially two years, though it's kind of hard to pin down the exact date. I saw the original trailer when it leaked at around the end of 2015 and was immediately interested.
The film was directed by Ash Brannon, a co-director of Toy Story 2 and the underrated masterpiece that is Surf's Up. I grew up with the latter film and was curious of this new project since Ash hasn't done a ton in the animation field since 2007.
I was so hyped for the film that I felt that it would surpass Zootopia. This belief had caused debates with many of the avid fans the film had garnered in the fandom. While my stance has softened on the Disney film, I still stand by some of the grievances I had with it. That being said I have decided that despite my desire to compare the two films, I decided to purely look at Rock Dog as it's own film and judge it on its own merits.
Now, on to the review!
The movie didn't have a release date until the end of 2016. So I marked my calendar and checked my local cinema. I would later discover that it wasn't being released in Canada.
End of review, right?
Well there's this thing called the internet and well— I've seen the movie now.
Did it live up to my expectations? Is it every bit as Rock and Dog as I'd hoped for?
Well, yes and no. It's complicated.
To give a brief assessment: it's inoffensive, doesn't resort to crude humor, has some charm to it despite not having the most memorable characters, and is a perfectly acceptable kids film.
Let's dive right in, shall we?
So Rock Dog is about a Tibetan Mastiff named Bodi (pronounced Bow-Dee), and his thirst to be a musician. Only issue is, he's living as a relative outcast high on Snow Mountain with his dad Khampa. Their job is to protect a village of absent-minded sheep and a solitary yak from an 'army' of wolves who would really love to just eat them all up. You know, as wolves do.
The central conflict revolves around Bodi and his dad as they disagree over his future. The father is of the belief his son will take his place as the future guard of the village, where Bodi wants to leave and follow his dream. When Bodi does later leave to go into the city, that conflict is tossed aside. New conflicts and challenges emerge, such as Bodi having to deal with the wolves that are trying to capture him along with the difficulty of trying to be a musician in the real world. There's a theme in the movie about finding your passion— 'your fire', as they call it. However even that isn't particularly brought up a lot, which might be a good thing. Themes that get too in your face can be unbearable at times. In most people's lives, they don't spend every waking second thinking about that sort of thing.
There are parts that kind of come out of nowhere in this movie, and they can be jarring but I don't think they hurt the movie's overall feel. The yak character sometimes makes comments to the audience but they can be easily ignored as they don't really matter or effect the story at all. Though I am happy to report that despite the trailers, the film is purely platonic. There is no romance as far as I can recall. Any warm smiles the characters give is a sense of mutual accomplishment or a personal goal being met.
They're bland, okay? Other than Angus Scattergood, they don't really have a lot of highs and lows. They're relatively one-dimensional, though the inner conflicts try to give them some flavor. This is probably a good time to mention the character design and writing in contrast to Zootopia. I think the choice of a Tibetan Mastiff and the teenage style look they gave Bodi is very cool. It might not be unique to humans but in terms of animated anthros, Bodi might be the first to rock a beanie like that. And I'd say that Bodi's design is arguably more unique than Nick Wilde's.
Outside of Bodi, the character designs aren't great. They all do their job in distinguishing the characters from one another but without being defined properly, the characters just don't really stand out. With motivations such as making it in music or finding your inner fire being so prevalent, it's really a wonder that these characters don't stand out.
The writing for these characters is a major part of why they're so bland, but this is actually a weird sort of positive. Maybe this is because this movie was meant to appeal to China as well as America that it really lacks in the dumb, childish humor that is so prevalent in films from DreamWorks or Illumination. This is refreshing, honestly. To see a film that isn't all that interesting, but isn't desperately trying to make bathroom humor is a nice change. That might be part of why I don't think it's that bad as a movie. It's no masterpiece but it doesn't do anything to leave a bad taste either.
Other Critical Responses
I've read and heard other people's reviews of this movie before laying mine out. They do echo a lot of what I'm frankly too bummed to admit. The characters are flat, the story isn't great, whatever. But they tend to harp on things such as there not being enough Rock music, or the voice performances. Both of those, might I say, are fine. J.K. Simmons and Luke Wilson do good jobs as Khampa and Bodi respectively. Everyone else also does their part.
The music? If you wanted AC/DC then yeah, you're gonna be disappointed. And the song in the finale of the film is actually just a modern uptempo pop song (though with clever writing, which is a step above Try Everything *coughcough*) with questionable mixing decisions rather than a hard rock tune. But you know what? There's plenty of emphasis and respect throughout the film to music that I think it's fine if the ending tune isn't an amalgamation of hard rock. There are quite a few times when characters just strum their guitars and even a point where two characters have a 'shred off'. The artistry is there, so I think Rock is as subjective as music itself. It doesn't always need to be a headbanger.
I've long since thought the film was supposed to be a metaphor for actual Tibet and China, and the power of Western influences. I don't think I was too wrong either. Very broadly, the film is showing that the unity that comes from embracing uniqueness is enough to break down walls, and that hindering someone's potential can be a detriment to society as a whole. Self expression can be a good thing! Though the metaphor is muddled when you consider the wolves, which I would assume to be a representation of China's government, actually DO want to kill the sheep and it isn't an overblown fear of Western values coming in to corrupt the purity of China, but whatever. The film isn't perfect and it's not trying to be some grand, multi layered metaphor. I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt as it could very well be likely considering the inspirations for this movie and the book is was based on.
To compare this movie to others to give you some clue as to where it stands, it's kind of like Over The Hedge but not as funny or crude. It has a good voice cast, maybe the same quality of animation (which some critics insist isn't good enough quality for theaters, but then also say it's too good for direct-to-DVD so make up your mind) and is a good kid's film. There isn't the same creativity in the character designs, backgrounds, or writing as Zootopia, but I would not dare say it is as bad as Norm Of the North.
Considering the fact that Boss Baby and Smurfs: The Lost Village are both sitting at lower scores on Rotten Tomatoes than this movie, then calling it the Norm Of the North of 2017 is really cruel and unjustified. With films such as the Emoji Movie and Captain Underpants coming down the pipe later this year, it may very well end up being one of the better animated films of 2017.
I hope with this review I didn't turn anyone away from this film. All I can do is say what was wrong with it and praise what it did right. You might just find yourself charmed by it like I was. I was probably more predisposed to like it since I've been excited for some time. However I was able to see the faults and I recognize it isn't nearly what I'd hoped it would be. But there was enough there for me to like and I hope you all find something to like in it too.
I've spent a few days trying to make my thoughts on this movie into a cohesive review. There's definitely a lot to give this movie flack for, but it's hard to put into words the charm it has. I hope I didn't make the film sound appalling and that maybe you'll give it a watch with your kids, or your nephews and nieces. As an adult I don't think there's a ton to take away from this film, but I'd gladly put this on for my future kids during the furry indoctrination phase of their upbringing. Though, I'll probably still end up playing Fantastic Mr. Fox more!
So that's my review! Have you seen the movie? Considering the US box office numbers, probably not. But go check it out when it's on DVD or Netflix! Feel free to comment with your thoughts.
Professional Rating: 4.5/10
Personal Rating: 6.5/10
So, crossaffliction, we're cool now? Right?