2015 will go down as the breakout year for Chinese feature animation. The country’s new crop of animated films are shattering box office records and setting new standards of quality; the only thing they haven’t done yet is reach Western filmgoers.
That will change with Rock Dog (watch trailer above), a Chinese-produced film intended for global export. While the film is based on a Chinese graphic novel and produced with Chinese money, the film’s production was outsourced to the United States to ensure Western relatability. “Few [Chinese animated films] have been interpreted into a universal language,” said the film’s producer Amber Wang. “Hollywood writers seem to know how to tell a story in a universal language and with such humanity.”
Here’s five key points you need to know about this film, which is the first Chinese animated feature outsourced for production to an American studio:
1. Rock Dog marks the first time a Chinese animated feature has been designed as a cross-cultural project for both Chinese and Western audiences. Budgeted somewhere in the range of $40-55 million (an exact figure has been hard to come by), it’s easily the most expensive 100% Chinese-financed animated production of all-time. The film’s principal backer is Huayi Brothers, which is distributing the movie in China.
2. Rock Dog tells the story of Bodi, a Tibetan Mastiff who becomes obsessed with an old-school rocker (and cat) named Angus, and must prove to his father that being a musician is a worthy career path for a dog. There’s also a sub-plot about a gang of wolves who want to attack the sheep village that Bodi’s family protects. Like Disney’s upcoming Zootopia, Rock Dog takes place in a human-less world of anthropomorphic animals. The American version of the film has a celebrity cast headlined by Luke Wilson (Bodi) and Eddie Izzard (Angus), with Lewis Black as the wolf gang leader, and rounded out by J.K. Simmons, Kenan Thompson, Mae Whitman, Jorge Garcia, Matt Dillon, and Sam Elliott.
3. The film is based on the popular Chinese graphic novel Tibetan Rock Dog written and illustrated Zheng Jun, who was also one of China’s first major rockstars in the mid-1990s. Zheng envisioned turning his comic into an animated feature that would “introduce cross-cultural values and philosophies,” which led him to launch Mandoo Pictures with producer Amber Wang, tech entrepreneur Deng Feng, and venture capitalist Xu Xiaoping. (Mandoo is the reverse of the two-syllable Chinese word for animation.)
4. Although Rock Dog originated in China and has Chinese backers, the film has an American director — Ash Brannon — and was animated by an American studio — Reel FX — the studio responsible for The Book of Life and Free Birds (the latter of which Brannon was directing at one time). Brannon, who co-directed Pixar’s Toy Story 2 and Sony’s Surf’s Up, initially joined the film as a story consultant. “I never planned to direct it,” he said in a recent interview. “But it was like the girl who’s just a friend, until one day you’re suddenly in love with her. There was a lot to love about the project –producers at Mandoo who generously allowed me creative freedom, the challenge of making a high-quality movie with only a fraction of the budget of the major studio features (in itself a worthy creative endeavor), and the seeds of a compelling story already in place.”
5. The film will debut in China on October 1. A U.S. release date and distributor have not been announced at this time, but a significant release of some sort is likely.