boltposterstarring John Travolta and Miley Cyrus
written by Dan Fogelman and Chris Williams & directed by Chris Williams and Byron Howard
Rated PG for some mild action and peril.

Bolt (Travolta) is the canine star of a hit action show, wherein he plays the scientifically-enhanced bodyguard of Penny (Cyrus), the daughter of a genius scientist who holds the key to world domination sought by the evil, cat-loving Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell). The glue that seemingly holds the show together is Bolt’s earnest belief that he truly is a super-dog, living the reality of the show (and the cast and crew go to extreme lengths to keep him deluded). Unfortunately, Bolt escapes from the set one day and is mistakenly shipped across the country to New York City, still under the misapprehension that Penny is in mortal danger. Dragging a world-weary cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) and joined by a maniacally-enthusiastic hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton), Bolt sets out on the epic journey back to Hollywood.

Bolt has a lot of baggage to overcome. Namely, the fact that it has cribbed two of its major character arcs off of the Toy Story movies, and features a cast of computer-animated talking animals voiced by celebrities. In originality of conception, this movie short-changes the audience rather drastically. However, much to my surprise, I didn’t notice or care nearly as much as I thought I would. Bolt may be a cinematic retread, but it never feels lazy and only rarely seems uninspired.

We begin inside the world of Bolt’s television show, with an (extremely) extended sequence of action-driven mayhem. In a movie that is not afraid to strain credibility, perhaps the biggest stretch for the audience will be believing this cornball display is a popular prime-time drama rather than an Inspector Gadget-like Saturday morning cartoon. The animators missed a number of opportunities here to really send-up some genre conventions (though they do get a few licks in), and it seems certain that Bolt will fall into the trap of taking itself too seriously.

In making its premise seem workable, Bolt is either trying too hard or not hard enough. Sure, we might wonder why Bolt would actually think he is a super dog when he isn’t, but we’d probably have forgotten the trouble once the story moved on. Instead, they dreamed up that cockamamie business about making the dog a better actor, a fantastical ruse that requires every stunt and special effect to be carefully engineered beforehand and which allows no retakes. It is an explanation that raises more questions than it answers, opening up a yawning hole in the plot that threatened to swallow my suspension of disbelief.

The feeling happily dissipates as soon as Bolt sets paw in the Big Apple and meets the more colorful supporting cast, beginning with a trio of eccentric pigeons. Between them and the hilarious antics of Rhino, Bolt is sporting a strong comedic backbone, but it is Mittens that really steals the show in every possible way. Essman’s performance brings us one of the strongest animated sidekicks in recent memory, a firmly-grounded, three-dimensional anchor for our sympathies who invokes laughter and tears in equal measure. Perhaps this is simply the cat person in me talking, but Mittens brings the sort of heart and balance that Dory supplies in Pixar’s Finding Nemo (to cite the example that comes most readily to mind).

By the time Bolt has shed his delusions and hit the road with Mittens and Rhino, the movie really hits its stride, coasting the story comfortably (if predictably) in for a warm, cozy landing. Bolt won’t surprise, but it will most likely entertain, particularly if you are gifted with the ability of not over-thinking. There are plenty of laughs, and it equals or betters Disney’s uneven output of the last decade or so: a vast improvement over abysmal fare like Home on the Range and Chicken Little, and on-par with last year’s frivolous Meet the Robinsons (though, disappointingly, lacking the latter’s pre-feature short cartoon, which I continue to hope will become a tradition again). Here’s hoping the upward trend continues.

~ by Jared on November 21, 2008.

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