In Bolt, a small American White Shepherd dog has amazing adventures, not realizing that none of it is real. The little guy (whose voice is provided by John Travolta) is actually the star of a highly rated action show for kids, but the show's director (James Lipton from TV's Inside the Actor's Studio) is a believer of method acting, and wants the dog to think the things that happen to him on the show are real to get a more natural performance from him. On the show, Bolt the dog (named so because of the lightning bolt mark on his fur, which he doesn't realize is actually make up) travels with his young human owner, Penny (Miley Cyrus), cross country searching for Penny's father, a scientist who has been kidnapped by the diabolical madman, Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell). Bolt has been genetically enhanced to have super canine abilities (actually special effects that are performed right there on the set), and uses those abilities to battle Calico's forces.
The concept of an actor on a TV show living in a make believe world, and not realizing his every move is being filmed by hidden cameras reminded me greatly of the Jim Carrey drama from 10 years ago, The Truman Show, and made me wonder if this was going to be another look at the same idea aimed at a much younger audience. The movie drops this idea fairly early on, and turns into a standard road trip comedy, but I wasn't disappointed. Despite an idea told many times before, Bolt has plenty of wit, charm, and heart to go around. Bolt is forced to hit the road when he believes Penny is in danger. The most recent episode ends with a cliffhanger where the girl has been kidnapped by Calico. After the shoot, Bolt is sent to his private trailer as always, but believing that Penny has actually been kidnapped, he breaks free and ends up accidentally inside a shipping box which is sent to New York City. In his strange real world surroundings, Bolt initially doesn't understand why his "powers" don't work like they usually do, and initially believes it's the result of the packing styrofoam that filled the shipping box, thinking it's a form of Kryptonite. He's still determined to track down Penny, even in his supposed weakened state, and forcefully brings an alley cat he finds named Mittens (Susie Essman from TV's Curb Your Enthusiasm, wonderful here) along for the ride, believing that she has ties to the evil Dr. Calico and can tell him where his human is.
The relationship between the delusional dog and the street wise, sarcastic cat is at the heart of Bolt, and also what makes the film work above all else. I loved the way that Mittens the cat initially goes along with the act, but when she begins to realize that this dog really does think he has super powers, begins to genuinely feel sorry for him, and begins to train him in the art of being a real dog. Bolt has been living a fantasy his entire life, and has never even experienced the joy of playing with a chew toy or sticking his head out an open window with his tongue flapping in the breeze. With so many animated films forcing the idea that animals are just like us, only with fur, here is a movie that starts with a dog who acts like a super human, and eventually learns to accept reality and enjoy the simplicity of a natural life. I liked that angle, and I liked the way that Mittens slowly warms up to Bolt's situation. She's a cat with a past, as she used to belong to some people who were forced to abandon her when they moved. She doesn't understand Bolt's devotion to Penny, as she believes humans can only hurt. They both teach each other what they know, and while this is nothing new, the screenplay by Dan Fogelman and co-director Chris Williams lets it develop slowly and sweetly. The spot on vocal performances by Travolta and Essman also add a lot.
Also along for the trip is a pudgy little hamster named Rhino (Disney animator Mark Walton), who is familiar with Bolt through watching his adventures on the "magic box" from his cage. He joins up with the duo, getting around by running about in his plastic ball. He's mainly there to provide comic relief, and though kids will likely enjoy him, I found him a little grating. Fortunately, the movie never allows him to take center stage and distract from what works. I was surprised by how sympathetic Bolt is, and how much I ended up caring for the characters. Even young Penny gets some effective moments. The preteen actress has always felt bad about having to lie to the little dog, and make him think their adventures were real. When he runs away, she feels responsible. As mentioned earlier, Penny is voiced by pop singing sensation and actress, Miley Cyrus, and this movie hints that she may have a future after the Hannah Montana fad comes to an end. I can only hope the Disney studio allows her to continue to branch out beyond her household name image like this.
The film is wonderful to look at, too. The visual style is bright and vibrant, and the character designs carry a lot of personality. When we see Bolt as a puppy at the very beginning of the film, playing with a toy, it's filled with much more character and emotion than any of the live human actors can muster in this weekend's other big release, Twilight. I also greatly admired the attention to detail in many of the film's settings. There's a brief montage where the three traveling animals visit different landmarks as they make their way cross country, and a shot of them watching the famous "water show" outside the Belagio hotel in Las Vegas looked like the real thing. This movie makes even the well animated Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa pale in comparison. The fact that this movie has some actual soul and heart behind it, unlike that mediocre cash-in sequel, certainly helps.
Over the years, the Disney studio has been trying to catch up to the works of Pixar with some of their own in-house computer animated films, and the results have up to now been middling. (Does anyone really remember Chicken Little or Meet the Robinsons?) Bolt is by far their best effort to try to capture the tone of a Pixar film, and while the film takes a few wrong steps (mainly with its unfunny comic relief character), it's definitely the closest they've come to their league. Bolt proves you don't always need original ideas as long as you have a lot of genuine emotion and likable characters on your side.
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