It’s easy to be skeptical of independent outfits that try to get in on the mainstream animation game. When even Pixar’s track record has been spotty lately, how much do we really expect from an animated feature not produced by it, Disney, or one of the other biggies? Sure, parents might spring for one of these lower-profile ’toons, but grudgingly — and at the moment, probably out of vacation-week desperation.
All of which helps to make the indie release “Rock Dog” such a terrific surprise. On its face, this story of a humble Tibetan mastiff harboring dreams of six-string glory is equal parts “Kung Fu Panda,” “Zootopia,” and “Hop,” with animation that’s basic by comparison, at least to a grown-up eye. But Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard, director Ash Brannon (“Surf’s Up”), and crew combine these ingredients into something that’s uniquely likable, and even unique-looking at times.
Wilson lends his everydude tone to Bodi, the sherpa-hatted pooch of the title, whose existence on remote Snow Mountain is copacetic enough, until a passing airplane drops “the answer to the question of [his] life.” Specifically, a radio, an utterly foreign device whose exotic sound immediately sets Bodi’s tail wagging, and sets him wondering about his village’s longstanding ban on all music. The edict comes from his dad (J.K. Simmons), stern protector of their sheep-populated peak, who fears anything that might distract them from the gangsterish wolves at the door (amusingly, eclectically cast Lewis Black, Kenan Thompson, et al.).
It’s one randomly diverting flourish after the next as Bodi makes the journey from his cloistered home to the big city and potential ax-shredding stardom. In a joke that’s good for lots of mileage, he leaves his backup sentry responsibilities to sheep amusingly outfitted in bobbleheaded mascot getups. And while we’re meant to picture, say, Times Square as his destination, matter-of-fact touches like Asian signage and chopsticks give it all a fortuitously fresh feel. (The film is a Chinese co-production.)
Ironically, the freshest element is Izzard’s creatively blocked British guitar hero, Angus Scattergood, a scrawny white cat in hipster black who has zero interest in entertaining Bodi’s puppy-dog entreaties for lessons. Seriously — get a load of Angus’s slapstick home-security gadgetry, one of the filmmakers’ various outlets for their clear Looney Tunes influence. Chaotic? Yep, but just attribute it to party-like-a-rock-star excess. What better way for an indie ’toon to make a major impression?
Directed by Ash Brannon. Written by Brannon and Kurt Voelker, based on the graphic novel “Tibetan Rock Dog” by Zheng Jun. Starring Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard, J.K. Simmons, Lewis Black, Kenan Thompson. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 90 minutes. PG (action, language).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.