by HELEN GEIB
The Disney animated film Bolt opened at the local second run theater this past weekend, giving me the opportunity to see another of the major Academy Awards nominated films on the big screen. I’m glad I acted on it. Bolt is a fun movie and excellent family fare.
The set-up of Bolt is the old comedy standby of a privileged youngster torn from his sheltered life and thrown upon his own resources out in the big, bad world. Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is the canine star of a popular TV show about the adventures of a spunky girl and her dog. The dog has been “modified” by the girl’s scientist father with superpowers, including super speed, laser beam-shooting eyes, and the bark of power. Poor Bolt’s been duped by the show’s producers into believing this fictional world is the real one (all in the good cause of getting the best performance possible).
His misapprehension leads to many comical mishaps when he escapes his handlers and inadvertently gets himself shipped to New York City. Bolt enlists the aid of an alley cat named Mittens (voiced by Susie Essman) whose hard shell hides a wounded heart. Bolt and Mittens gain an unexpected ally in a wacky hamster named Rhino (voiced by Mark Walton) who has seen way too much TV and trusts implicitly in the superpowers of the super dog. The trio embark on a cross-country journey to Hollywood compelled by Bolt’s determination to reunite with his person, child star Penny (voiced by Miley Cyrus).
Bolt is a synthesis of familiar storylines, starting with the Hollywood star traveling incognito to experience life outside Dreamland. Mismatched pets surviving an arduous journey to return to their owner is the plot of the classic young adult novel, “The Incredible Journey.” Bolt’s rude awakening is like the shock felt by the rich man who considers himself a wit until people who don’t depend on him for a living fail to laugh at his jokes. The “rich kid in the real world” plot has been made before with dogs in the starring roles, most notably in Disney’s own “Lady and the Tramp” and most recently in last year’s Disney moneymaker “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.”
I offer the above more as an observation than a criticism. To the extent they’re even aware of it, children won’t be bothered by the film’s lack of originality, and Bolt is a good enough movie that it won’t matter much for adult viewers either.
The foremost element in the film’s success is the character of Bolt; he’s lovable, loyal, funny, heroic, and darned cute, too. There’s not a kid in America who wouldn’t want a dog like Bolt. I can’t praise Travolta’s voice work too highly. It’s lively, varied, and well attuned to the character, one of the best things he’s done in years. Runner-up in the favorite character stakes is comic relief Rhino. That’s one funny, funny hamster.
Colors in Bolt are bright and appealing. The animals, buildings and objects, and landscapes are drawn in a fairly realistic style, while the people’s faces and bodies are exaggerated. The animation of the animals- expressive without distortion- stands out. Rhino’s contortions in the grip of strong emotions are wonderfully amusing and it’s incredible how pigeon-like the pigeons’ twitchy movements are.
Bolt was nominated with Kung Fu Panda and Wall-E in the category of best animated feature film for 2008. Judged on animation alone, Bolt is not the equal of its competitors (although it surpasses Wall-E as children’s entertainment). There is, though, one long sequence near the beginning of the film that is the equal of anything in Kung Fu Panda or earthbound Wall-E. Presented as an excerpt from Penny and Bolt’s TV show, the sequence is a brilliantly animated, hilarious send-up of overblown Hollywood action movies complete with chases, explosions, gadgets, indestructible heroes, absurdity, and note-perfect “camerawork” and “special effects.”
The film makes a strong plea for responsible pet ownership, overtly through the character of Mittens (traumatized by pet abandonment), obliquely through Bolt’s unwavering faith in Penny, and subtly through narrative and visual endorsements of pet adoption from animal shelters. Children may ask to get a dog after seeing this film, but there was never any danger of it generating a run on some unsuitable-for-children breed. Bolt is definitely a mutt.
Note: Bolt is paired with “Tokyo Mater,” a short animated comedy featuring the hick tow truck from Pixar’s Cars. The short is an amusing spoof of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.