[5 December 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In the highly competitive and lucrative world of CG animation, there’s Pixar…and then everyone else. While it’s clear that companies like Dreamworks, Fox, and the House of Mouse itself, Disney, have made great strides to catch up to John Lasseter and the gang, no one can top recent, award-winning masterworks like Wall-E, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and Cars…that is, until now. Yep, leave it to the newly inspired workers of Uncle Walt’s world to finally step up their game (with a little outside help) and deliver one of 2008’s most rock solid family entertainments. While Bolt may not be the timeless classic of its partner’s predecessors, it shows that efforts like Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons were little more than mere mediocre warm-ups.
As the star of TV’s biggest action hit, Bolt is a very sheltered dog. As a matter of fact, the production company has kept him in the dark about his fictional hero status. He’s never left his trailer in over five years. So when he is accidentally separated from his on-air “person”, child star Penny, and winds up thousands of miles from Hollywood in NYC, he’s one disoriented dog. Hooking up with a cynical alley cat named Mittens, Bolt is eager to get back to his master. But as he soon learns, he’s not possessed of the super powers that make his adventures on TV so successful. This causes a whole new set of problems. Eventually, the duo meets up with starstruck hamster Rhino. Together, the trio attempts to stay alive, travel across the country, and reunite with Penny and the production team.
Back before the PC ran everything, Bolt would have been the kind of movie the Disney Company made in their sleep. It’s slick, sophisticated, incredibly well scripted, and sprinkled with enough ani-magic fairy dust to keep both the adults and the wee ones totally sated. From the pitch perfect voice casting - yes even Miley Cyrus - to the wonderful action sequences that set up Bolt’s complicated persona, first time directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams never miss a bravura beat. Instead, they take what could have been cloying and maudlin, aimed directly at the diminished demo that the House of Mouse has been milking for nearly three decades, and deliver something startling and a whole lot of fun. You may feel slightly manipulated, but cute pets in trouble can do that to a viewer.
John Travolta, who voices our canine lead, does something truly remarkable here. He manages to make us forget his own international superstardom and through the force of his performance, gets us to care for a pen and ink pooch. This isn’t the first time an actor’s strengths have lent credibility and potency to an animated effort, but Travolta’s work in Bolt is just outstanding. So are the supporting players, including the tween phenom as girl in peril Penny, comic Susie Essman as gnarled New York kitty Mittens, voice over artist Mark Walton as Rhino, and some surprise cameos (Malcolm McDowell, James Lipton) in luminous lesser roles. With art design that suggests humanness without really getting into realistic detail, all aspects of Bolt are polished and professional.
But perhaps the biggest surprise here is how Disney has managed to make a successful commercial film that doesn’t feel like a crass, calculated cash grab. For years now, the minds behind such hapless 2D dreck as Home on the Range, Brother Bear, and about a billion direct to DVD titles, have threatened to become irrelevant within the medium they helped create. Full length feature animation would be nothing without Walt’s way with storytelling…and product selling. But since the advent of home video, all Disney has cared about is the bottom line. Money, not emotional satisfaction, has been its main priority. But with Bolt, you can sense that shifting. You can see where elements that may not play directly into the studio planned parental babysitting (the over the top stunts, for example) have instead been embraced, utilized to accent the sense of adventure and over cinematic wonder.
Also, there’s a lot of heart in this film. Bolt’s earnest affection for Penny really comes through, and while always playing the party pooper, Mittens gets a Las Vegas moment that’s truly telling. Rhino may be the movie’s only obvious effort at smile driven attention grabbing, what with his goofball mugging and pop culture shout outs. Yet within the context of everything else, it works, as does Miley’s mandatory song (gotta keep all revenue streams open, right?). In fact, Ms. Cyrus is not a weak link here by any capacity. The drawl has been toned down substantially, and Penny doesn’t resemble the Hannah Montana star one bit. If you weren’t told this was Miss Best of Both Worlds, you’d never really guess her temporary A-list identity.
Indeed, the inherent charms of Bolt make issues like cross-promotion and product placement seem ancillary, or even obsolete. It’s rare that we get lost in such fictional derring-do, that a bunch of moving bitmaps can charm us in ways that even live action films lack. But thanks to the imagination of the powers who used to rule the cartoon artform, we can escape for 80 minutes of merry mutt hijinx. And for those lucky enough to experience the film in Disney’s new 3D process, the picture is IMAX-level remarkable. The amount of depth and detail is truly astounding. As Pixar moves forward with its future projects, Disney is relying on their newfound affiliation to keep, as well as reconstruct, its position as the industry’s leading light. Bolt proves that the link is definitely working.