Rock Dog is a low-down, no-damn-good movie. But terribly fascinating anyway, if more in theory than actuality. The film exists as a hoped-for evolutionary link between the second- and third-largest film markets in the world;* it has been 100% financed by Chinese production companies but 100% created by U.S. artists at a U.S. studio. The source material is a Chinese-language graphic novel. The cast is predominately American, speaking English (a Chinese dub was prepared, but unlike e.g. the U.S-China co-production Kung Fu Panda 3, the mouth animation wasn't redone). The setting is God knows what: signage is mostly in English, but here and there a newspaper or such will be printed in hànzi. It takes place in a city that fills a very Los Angeles-ish role in the music industry, and which is a day's bus ride or less from a small village in the Himalaya mountains. The budget, around $60 million, is the most ever spent on a Chinese animated production, and is so small by American standards that director Ash Brannon recently mentioned in a Cartoon Brew interview, "We were unsure if we’d have money to pay everyone from week to week".

It is, explicitly and unmistakably, an attempt to make something that can compete on the international market (Chinese animation production has been growing for years now, but remains almost entirely locked within its native country), which is the reason for all of the above. And it's also the reason that Rock Dog ends up lacking anything remotely resembling an identity. It's much, much too Americanised to bear any trace of its Chinese origins except in the Tibetan-esque setting of the opening act (and there are all sorts of implications to that, of course, none of which I feel qualified to talk about), and probably for that reason, it tanked hard during its summer 2016 release in China. The flipside is that it feels profoundly ersatz: it feels like a very calculated and very wrong guess at what Americans are like, even though the script was written by Brannon leading a cluster of fellow Americans (this is as good a point as any to mention that Brannon was co-director and co-scenarist of Toy Story 2, as well as the 2007 Oscar nominee Surf's Up, and that makes Rock Dog unnecessarily tragic on top of all the rest). Lo and behold, it appears to be tanking hard in the States, too.

No tears will I shed over Rock Dog's fate. It is rarely better than clumsy as a story and usually much worse; it's also damned ugly. With one shocking exception: the lighting is superb. Elaborate shadow effects, a host of different color temperatures on display in inside spaces throughout, boldly saturated sunsets; somebody was pouring their heart and soul into this project, and I guess it was probably lighting & compositing supervisor Jeffrey Alcantara? Anyway, Rock Dog has lighting effects that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with just about anything, except for maybe the very poshest, costliest Pixar films. It is legitimately baffling to see a movie that declares, in every facet of its aesthetic, "Find me in the 3-for-$10 bin at Wal-Mart this Christmas!", and then there's a shot of, I don't know, light seeping in through the crack below a door, and it's just so pretty.

But that is, I want to reiterate, the exception. The rule is a lot of characters who are distressingly free of texture and detail, with awfully smooth surfaces, for a population of fur-covered animals. And there are a few points where the film tries very hard to make sure you notice it, like one slow & steady zoom-in that pushes right up against the main character's eye, giving us a nice long chance to see how unpleasantly pebbly his snout is. Or there's the way that everybody's clothing seems to be made out of stiff vinyl - not rigid, but definitely stiff - and how everybody also has only one outfit. Or the way that the antagonists are wolves with bright yellow eyes (and the voices of Kenan Thompson and Lewis Black), which in fairness looks really cool and, like, midcentury Warner Bros. in still images, but in movement it appears that they've all had their eyeballs replaced with plastic balls. Or the ghastly design of the sheep. Just the one sheep, you understand, which is then then copy-pasted for all of the dozens of other sheep. There are reasons for that, even reasons that the script happily calls attention to; and yet it's an unpleasantly specific looking sheep, with horribly thoughtful features.

There's a plot attached to all of this; I'd say even a very predictable one, but part of the charm of Rock Dog is the insanity with which it combines individually clichéd kids' film tropes into one incomprehensible package. Though now that I'm thinking of it, "dog that shoots fireballs from its hands" isn't really a cliché, is it? So anyway, there's an isolated village whose population is entirely made up of sheep, except for a pair of Tibetan mastiffs who live on the edge of town and serve as perpetual guardians against the long-dormant but ever-present threat of wolves. One of them does, at least, the humorless Khampa (J.K. Simmons). Khampa's son Bodi (Luke Wilson) just wants to play music, all the more so ever since a radio fell out of a passing cargo plane and introduced him to the wonders of rock music. Khampa is outraged at this, of course, but under pressure from the local transplanted hippie, Fleetwood Yak (Sam Elliott, almost explicitly playing his character from The Big Lebowski), the father allows his son to travel into the big city to try to make it. This is where the mafia, and a British rock star cat named Angust Scattergood (Eddie Izzard) who exploits his songwriting partners and has a robot butler come into play.

And all in just 80 minutes, which includes the end credits - it is a madcap, dense film, this Rock Dog, making up in sheer momentum what it lacks in a sensible, organic development from one plot point to the next. The speed with which we move from "Talking dog Footloose" to "asshole British cat flies his tour bus into gangster wolves while an army of cloned sheep are about to burned alive" is honestly even impressive, insofar as it is very difficult to be bored by Rock Dog. Annoyed, most definitely. But not bored. It buzzes around much too much for that, and and becomes much too grating (on top of being ugly and indistinct throughout) to be boring. Hooray for the art of animation.

*India is the largest by admissions - by an enormous margin, too - but for all sorts of reasons there is very limited exchange between the Indian film industry and the rest of the world.