Much ballyhooed as the first in a series of Bollywood/Disney co-productions — though entirely made in India with Indian staff — “Roadside Romeo” scores high on the tech front but considerably lower on script smarts. Subcontinent’s first 3-D computer-animated feature, about a happy-go-lucky Mumbai mutt’s life on the streets, should entertain undemanding tykes but looks unlikely to generate as much heat as some other heavy-hitters during the Diwali frame. Though the pic comes loaded with U.S. pop-culture influences — from hip-hop musical numbers to a hero who calls everyone “dude” and “guys” — there’s little crossover potential beyond non-resident Indian auds.
Despite the 2005 hit “Hanuman” (done in traditional 2-D style and centered on Indian myth) and other recent attempts (live-action/animated “My Friend Ganesha” and warring-techno-ants saga “Cheenti cheenti bang bang”), animation is one field India has yet to make a lasting mark in, (although the country is used for outsourced work on many Western pics). Apart from its less-than-smooth character movement, “Roadside Romeo” is a good calling card for the work of Visual Computing Labs (part of the Bangalore-based Tata Elxsi group), with exceptionally detailed rendering of fur and hair — a bargain for a reported budget of only $7 million.
However, pic is less of a calling card for first-time director Jugal Hansraj or the quality control of producer Yash Raj Films, which has shown signs of slipping badly during the past year. With its swooping camera and over-the-top characters, “Romeo” plays much like a live-action masala pic, complete with musical numbers; but its thin story, which becomes irksomely repetitive after the first half-hour, makes most recent masala movies look like high literature.
Romeo (voiced by Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan) is a mutt with attitude who’s just been cast out on the streets after his wealthy owners decamped to London. Flashy main-title number, as he recalls his high days in a luxury manse, is the best in the picture; thereafter, inspiration is generally downhill.
Romeo falls in with a street gang led by Guru (Vrajesh Hirjee), whose main accomplishment is doing imitations of Bollywood stars — helpfully identified in the English subtitles for non-Hindi speakers. Romeo gives the gang a style makeover and sets up his own street salon, which is immediately targeted as a source of protection money by Charlie Anna (Javed Jaffrey, in a southern Indian accent) and his doofus sidekick, Chhainu (Suresh N. Menon).
When Romeo also falls for pouty pooch Laila (Kareena Kapoor, Khan’s real-life partner), Charlie starts to get even nastier with Romeo, as the fat old bulldog also fancies the glamorous chanteuse.
Almost entirely set on the backstreets and grungy vacant lots of Mumbai — with no humans in sight — the pic devolves into a series of faceoffs between Romeo and Charlie, with Guru’s gang and supports like Chhainu as comic relief. There’s little variety to the settings and situations, and no real drama or tension. Musical numbers, apart from the hip-hop “Cool Cool” and the title one, are just OK, and choreography ditto.
Bollywood in-jokes pepper the script (the train finale re-creates that of the 1995 classic “Dilwale dulhania le jayenge”) and the end titles concoct outtakes between the cartoon characters. Voice artists are also shown at work in the studio.