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Non-Review Review: Bolt

I really enjoyed Bolt. Being entirely honest, Disney’s track record with its own CGI was hardly encouraging, with Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons hardly measuring up to the work of the company’s other animation division. Bolt might not be quite as good as Tangled, but – at its very best – it manages to hit on those big, shared emotions and themes that have helped Pixar set the standard for modern animation. For most of its run, it’s a solidly entertaining and diverting family film, but it also has moments of powerful emotional connection.

His bark's worse than his bite...

The premise isn’t rocket science. It’s hokey and contrived. The movie itself is so efficiently assembled that it probably could have been built by a computer algorithm designed to produce entertaining family films. There’s a whole host of clichés and assorted tropes that one expects from this sort of film. It’s about a talking dog, complete with two sidekicks, one offering a cynical viewpoint, while the other is enthusiastic to the point of psychosis. Together, they embark (see what I did there?) on a journey from coast-to-coast, learning the true value of friendship and companionship. Oh, and the lead character has no experience of the real world, so we get the fish-out-of-water element too.

In short, it’s a concept (or a stew of concepts) based on elements we’ve seen executed time and time again. Even the first big reveal of the movie is spoiled by the trailers, plot summaries and other assorted promotional materials. However, I don’t think Disney are famed for their in-house innovation, and it’s not the paint-by-numbers, assemble-to-specifications plot that makes the movie. It’s the execution that carries it off, and allows the movie to bring a smile to even the most cynical face. The movie is blissfully aware of what it is – it’s not pretending to “wow” audiences, and knows it’s offering exactly what you might expect. But it’s never ashamed of that, and carries it off with enough energy and enthusiasm that it’s a little infectious.

The Green Eyed Monster...

Consider, for example, the set-up of what can only be described as a “doggy Truman Show.” It’s hokey, and illogical, and silly. And, though we probably wouldn’t take issue with it if the movie glossed over the plot device and moved along, the film takes a ridiculous amount of pleasure in justifying what is an absolutely insane concept. Instead of brushing it over with a line and hoping we’ll ignore it, the movie gleefully revels in the skewed and ridiculous justification for it, with lines delivered by James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio between mouthfuls of scenery. As he explains:

“I see an animal who believes with every fiber of his being, every fiber, that the girl he loves is in mortal danger. I see a depth of emotion on the face of that canine the likes of which has never been captured on screen before! Never, Mindy from the network! We jump through hoops to make sure that Bolt believes everything is real. It’s why we don’t miss marks. It’s why we don’t reshoot, and it’s why we most certainly do not let the dog see boom mikes! Because, Mindy from the network, if the dog believes it, the audience believes it.”

Bolt's dogged determination to get home...

Doggy method acting is an insane concept, and the movie winks at the audience as it illustrates at length just how insane it is. There are countless other touches throughout the movie them demonstrate the production team never took things too seriously. I love, for example, the ridiculous “this is what Hollywood thinks is awesome” opening chase sequence that involves helicopters that poop motorbike assassins. You read that right. And then there’s footage of the same explosion from four different angles, with an empty soda cup knocked over half the city away to illustrate the force of the blast.

Along the way, there’s time to acknowledge old favourites like The Goodfeathers from Animaniacs. “Forget about it,” a pigeon advises a trapped Bolt, like a mobster to a convicted colleague, “you’ll be out in no time.” Hell, at one point I even thought I saw a poster in the background for what could have been a ridiculously terrible John Travolta action film, with the generic title of Blast Radius. It’s touches like these that allow the movie to stand out from the crowd, a tacit acknowledgement that the film isn’t intended to be an instant classic addition to the Disney canon, just a fun family film.

Having a ball...

It helps that the execution of the plot is absolutely top notch. John Travolta plays Bolt quite well, but the actor has a tremendous chemistry with an alley cat, Mittens, played by Susie Essman. The pair take what is a fairly conventional dynamic, and make it work – in a way, it reminded me of the wonderful chemistry between Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo. Even the movie’s plucky comic support, a hamster named Rhino (“one-sixteenth wolf”) is surprisingly endearing, and remarkably quotable. One of the better lines: “Ring, ring!” he begins. “Who’s there?” he asks himself. “Destiny?” he asks, before remarking, “I’ve been expecting your call.”

However, the movie does exceptionally well when it hits upon the sorts of big themes that Pixar take for granted, in particular that fear common to both children and adults, the fear of abandonment. Anyone who has ever owned a pet wants to believe that their animal is capable of the same sort of affection and love, and it’s natural to see that reflected here – Bolt is slavishly devoted to “his person”, as he calls his owner, expressing the human-dog relationship in a manner more co-dependent than simply “owner.”So it’s heart-breaking to think that these creatures might be left behind or forgotten. In particular, there’s a truly powerful little scene between Bolt and Mittens which is surprisingly emotional.

Swinging into action...

On the other hand, there are moments where the film does submit to fairly conventional sentimental hokum, without the same weight or emotional complexity. For example, there’s a montage set to love song about Bolt learning to be a dog, that feels just a little bit too sweet for my taste – don’t get me wrong, there are still moments of wit, but it goes on just a little bit too long. Similarly, the sequences with Bolt’s owner, Penny, never seem to affect the audience the way they should. It just doesn’t feel effective enough for the time devoted to her.

These are small complaints. Bolt is, for the vast majority of its runtime, a clever and fun little animated adventure. To its credit, it’s more preoccupied with having fun than trying to be taken seriously. However, there are a few moments where it truly knocks it out of the park.

2 Responses

  1. I completely forgot this movie even existed. I seem to barely recall ads for it, but didn’t know the premise. Sounds pretty interesting, I’ll give it a look.

  2. My wife and I absolutely love this film. It is pure, unbridled, entertainment. A great example of why CGI movies and good humour make such an irresistible combo.

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