Film Reviews: Wednesday, November 19, 2008
A hamster and a dog get rolling in Bolt.
Voices by John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, and Susie Essman. Directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams. Written by Dan Fogelman and Chris Williams. Rated PG.
Best of Breed

A hamster in a ball steals the dogís show in Disneyís animated Bolt.


The enjoyable new Disney animated film Bolt begins with a superbly straight-faced send-up of Hollywood thrillers. A girl named Penny (voiced by Miley Cyrus) and her genetically altered white German shepherd named Bolt flee from the minions of an evil rich English dude (voiced by Malcolm McDowell). Every element here is perfectly in place: the heart-tugging phone call between Penny and her kidnapped dad, the moodily shadowed lighting, the musical score bubbling over with tension, the mix of absurdity and can-you-top-this showmanship. Usually, live-action kidsí movies fall short when they try to imitate grown-up thrillers because they donít have the budget to do them properly. The animation here frees up the filmmakers to stage multiple vehicle wrecks and explosions as the bad guys are chasing Bolt ó pulling Penny on her scooter ó down a busy freeway. The action is inventive, witty, and edited in a briskly fluid style that puts Quantum of Solace to shame, and it culminates in a breathtaking and surreally funny shot of Bolt leaping over a helicopter in mid-flight. This prologue sends the film off and flying.
Of course, the action is revealed to be part of a TV show in which Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) portrays a dog who can bust through walls, destroy metal with his heat vision, and blow away armies with his supersonic bark. The thing is, he doesnít know heís acting because the programís pompous director (voiced by ó oh, youíve gotta be kidding ó James Lipton) keeps Bolt sequestered on the set, figuring that the canine star can give his best performances only if he thinks the DELETEed action thatís happening around him is real. (This setup is strangely reminiscent of Peter Weirís 1998 film The Truman Show, by the way.) Penny is a kid actor who owns Bolt in real life and loves him even though heís no fun any more because he lives in a state of constant high alert. Bolt is so used to saving Penny from fake villains that heís forgotten how to be a dog.
The turning point comes when Bolt escapes from the studio and winds up transported from Hollywood to New York, where he dragoons a two-bit gangster of an alley cat named Mittens (voiced by Susie Essman) into helping him travel across the country to reunite with Penny. The middle section of the film sags somewhat as Bolt inevitably discovers that he has no superpowers. This results in a running gag wherein he thinks that Styrofoam is like kryptonite to him. Itís not as funny as it sounds. The relationship between Bolt and Mittens yields one rewarding scene in which she teaches him how to beg for food. The whole sequence is a close-up view of the dogís face, and you can tell the animators are having a blast making small changes to Boltís expression until they get the right forlorn one. The rest of this storyline doesnít yield as much, perhaps because the headliners in the voice cast are oddly off their game.
Still, the movie has a powerful trump card in Rhino (voiced by Disney animator Mark Walton), an overweight, overexcited, overeager hamster who recognizes Bolt from the TV show and tags along on the road trip to spice up his boring life with an adventure. (ďRing ring! Who is it? Destiny! Iíve been awaiting your call.Ē) Rhino spends most of the movie in a hamster ball, rolling from place to place and getting knocked around, and the filmmakers score big laughs in rendering the ballís movements and thinking of sight gags for the animal inside the ball. The hamster is the catalyst for a gleefully destructive sequence when our heroes escape from an animal shelter, and he delivers a rousing and completely characteristic speech when Boltís spirits need lifting. Whenever the movieís energy threatens to flag, Rhinoís fanboy exuberance comes to the rescue.
When Disney bought Pixar two years ago, the latter firmís creative geniuses were installed to oversee the parent companyís animated movies. Bolt is the first Disney film in which we can see the influence of Pixar, not just in the movieís cool-looking computer-generated visuals but also in its emphasis on story and character to go with the animation style. Though it never achieves the sort of dramatic power that you get from Pixar movies, itís definitely more entertaining than any of the other movies for kids that are currently out there. Bolt also shows that Disneyís animated films are on the path to becoming relevant again. This is an entirely healthy development, and both the under-12 audience and their parents will notice the difference.

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