My notes on Bolt
A crossbreed of The Truman Show and The Incredible Journey, this in-house Disney project feels a little too calculated in its attempt to fit the CGI toon template of the Disney-affiliated Pixar shingle – one of the funniest of its scattering of showbiz in-jokes is a sideswipe at Finding Nemo, and Pixar founder John Lasster is aboard as an exec – without taking the risks that, for better (WALL-E) or worse (Cars), have made Pixar cutting edge. It is technically innovative in its use of 3D effects which seem, only a month or so after the release of Fly Me to the Moon, to be generations ahead, though it’s less showy in its use of computer-animated dimensional effects than Beowulf or the untouted live-action Journey to the Center of the Earth. Those movies lost far more seen flat than Bolt will, which is either cannily commercial (thinking of the long-term DVD ancillaries for kids’ films) or simply timid on the part of debuting directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard.
The set-up, established in an all-action prologue, is that Bolt (voiced by John Travolta when the barking stops), a dog with a lightning-flash dye-patch, thinks he has super-powers and is constantly battling the minions of the evil green-eyed man (Malcolm McDowell) – who lives up to his description by having a singular green cat’s eye – to rescue his mistress Penny (Miley Cyrus) from certain death. Actually, Bolt and Penny are the stars of a long-running TV show and the entire production is geared around getting a performance from the dog by convincing him that it’s real (the action scenes, like the ones in The Stunt Man, are done as-live with in-studio real-time explosions and split-second timing) and the canny cats on the show (this follows the toon convention that animals talk to each other in English but only bark and miaow to humans) play along with the gag to torment him. A contrivance has Bolt packed in a box and mailed to New York, where he finds his powers don’t work – he assumes that the styrofoam packing acts on him like kryptonite, and he shanghais Mittens (Susie Essman), an underfed but hardboiled cat who has been working a protection racket on Scorsese-sounding pigeons (who are a bit too close to Animaniacs’ Goodfeathers for comfort), to help him get back to Hollywood to rescue Penny again and return to what he imagines is his life.
This is a dog person film, with the cat shamefully admitting at a low point all cats secretly want to be as loved (and dependant) as dogs, but the stridently stupid, frankly bullying, self-righteous hero is so unlikeable at the outset that his eventual reconciliation with the simple pleasures of slobbering and playing aren’t as heart-warming as they want to be. Things are considerably enlivened mid-point by the arrival of Rhino (Mark Walton), an obese fanboy hamster who mostly works out of his perspex ball, who tags along in the hope of being a hero sidekick. It has good spectacle: the finale with Bolt not rescuing Penny from a burning studio but enabling her rescue by human firemen, is dramatically sound in that it reaffirms the hero’s heroism while stressing that he no longer believes in his superpowers but inevitably means that the film goes out on a less rousing note than the Jim Cameron-Michael Bay-Roland Emmerich-style insane action set-piece of the opening reel. A running joke about a fast-talking, crass, and insensitive agent (Greg Germann) is less funny than it might be – and it’s a cop-out to make the agent the villain, exonerating Penny (who just wants her dog to be happy even if it means quitting the show) but also not making the studio out to be big baddies either (Bolt, of course, was made by a studio, not an agent). The look of the characters is very Pixar – but, with the possible exception of Rhino, they seem too half-formed to have much lasting spin-off potential. Like Toy Story, The Incredibles, Lilo & Stitch and Monster House (among other recent kid films), it is notionally contemporary in its references but goes for a classic look which seems to roll back America to about 1962 in its social mores, car designs, cultural references (so much so that the Finding Nemo gag seems out of place) and character types.