Monday, January 05, 2009

Movie Log: Bolt

The Thanksgiving animated movie this year -- after Igor but before Madagascar 2 in the eternal parade of cheery pseudo-entertainment for ankle-biters and their captive drivers -- was Bolt, the first post-Pixar Disney CGI film. It didn't look all that horrible, so I took the kids to see it.

(To refresh your memories, Thing 1 is an overgrown and incredibly energetic ten-year-old, all flailing arms, raised voice, and heart of mush. Thing 2 was a few weeks shy of turning eight, a slim quiet #2 who enjoys sneaking around things and doing tumbling. I now won't refer to them again in the course of this review.)

Bolt was going to be a movie called American Dog, until Disney bought Pixar, John Lasseter took over animation, and then -- the stories diverge wildly here -- either saved a doomed, flailing production or massively suckified what would have been the greatest animated movie in the history of everything. (A lot of that backstory is hashed out here; and googling "american dog movie" will find more.) But, for once, I'm going to avoid comparing a work of art to what it could or should have been, and just look at what actually was made.

Bolt is a dog, raised apparently from birth (whelping?) to believe that he has superpowers and that the vaguely sci-fi action TV show he stars in is his real life. The show is a kid on the run in jeopardy story, done in live action with an massive budget, that somehow is an immense hit, which is about as likely as the Bolt-doesn't-know-he's-normal plot. But the movie looks good and speeds through this introductory material quickly, so let's allow it for the sake of argument -- it's the premise, and we have to allow premises.

We all know what has to happen to a delusional main character, right? He gets dropped, hard, into the real world, where he finds some unlikely friends, who travel with him until he gets back to reclaim his place in the world. And that's the plot of Bolt from that point -- he slowly realizes he's not a super-dog, but still wants to get back to his owner/co-star/best friend, Penny.

What makes Bolt work is that it's breezy and entertaining; it's not trying to be profound, just to tell this story. Unlike Disney movies of a decade or so ago, it's not primarily there to deliver a message -- it's just the kind of movie that has a message in its back pocket at all times anyway.

That's one thing that makes it work -- there are two other major factors. First is the look of the movie: it's gorgeously rendered, down to the smallest details, and the 3D process used actually works, even for people with eyes as bad as mine. It's not intrusive 3D, but immersive -- blades of grass at the edge of the screen look close enough to touch, and real enough to stain your clothes. That surface realism goes a long way to getting an audience to settle into the movie.

And the last thing that makes Bolt work are the performances. The name-above-the-title folks -- John Travolta as Bolt, Miley Cyrus as Penny -- are fine, and neither they nor the script calls attention to who they are. (I'd forgotten it was Travolta, and couldn't figure out who it was from the voice until the end credits.) But the real standout, as every review has mentioned, is Disney story artist Mark Walton as Rhino, a delusional hamster in a ball who pretty much runs away with the movie.

Rhino is funny, and makes every scene he's in a joy. More extraordinarily, he's a funny geek, and that didn't turn every one of his lines to a reference to something outside the movie.

So Bolt is deeply, deeply predictable, but it does enough with what it has to make watching it fun. I'm not sure if the kids will want this one on DVD -- the usual test of a movie around here -- but we all certainly liked watching it once, and that's good enough for an animated movie for kids.


SQT said...

We took the kids to "Bolt" and I think it's pretty much exactly as you described it. Rhino is the best thing about the movie-- for sure. Most importantly, the kids liked it. And if I wasn't such a kid myself I'd say that's why we were there.

Anonymous said...

I was exceedingly pleased to discover the moral ambiguities and greyspaces in Bolt -- for example, the reveal about Mittens' backstory was rather a kick-in-the-teeth level secret for a 'kid movie'.

hanum said...

I just watched this movie last night :D , cool animation, great!

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