Saturday, April 25, 2015

Dog Days

Film: Bolt
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

I went into Bolt specifically with the thought that I probably wouldn’t like it a ton. This was a film that had to win me over. While there are certainly exceptions, Disney animation went through a dark period, and some of those movies (see Brother Bear, for instance) were, well, pretty awful. Even a lot of good non-Pixar Disney films suffer from being flatly predictable throughout. So Bolt very much started out as “I need to check off this box” instead of a film I was looking forward to seeing.

After an initial problem with the DVD, I settled in and ironed a bunch of shirts while I watched. Bolt follows the tried and true “plenty of make believe, but be true to yourself” Disney fable, in this case pretty literally—more literally than usual, in fact. We start with an introduction to Penny (Miley Cyrus before she went all “former Disney star” crazy), who gets a new dot from a pet shelter. We learn that this dog, Bolt (voiced by John Travolta during scenes without humans), has been given a variety of super powers by Penny’s father to protect her against his nemesis, Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell). There’s a solid action sequence of Bolt and Penny avoiding Calico’s many minions and a quick primer on Bolt’s powers.

And then we learn it’s all a fake. Bolt is actually the star of a television show about, well, what was included in the previous paragraph. The show’s director (a brilliantly-cast James Lipton) is insistent that the dog never realize that the whole thing is a fake. In Bolt’s world, he really does have super powers, Dr. Calico really is an evil scientist bent on world domination, and Penny really does need to be saved over and over again.

So, naturally, this means that Bolt is going to be removed from his normal element through a series of misadventures that see him being shipped across the country. Back in Hollywood, the show goes on with a replacement dog despite the heartbroken Penny’s objections. Meanwhile, Bolt attempts to figure out why his powers no longer work and has to travel across the country to return to Penny. He enlists the aid of an alley cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) and a plastic-ball ensconced hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton) who has watched Bolt on television but is also convinced that the show is real life.

In other words, this literally is a land of make-believe where the real lesson that Bolt has to learn is that while much of his world is not what he thought it was, Penny may well be what he thought she was, and that getting back to her is a truly heroic act.

Okay, so maybe that’s a little dismissive. But like I said, I had some issues going into this, not the least of which was the “I know what this is going to be” art on the box cover. We’ve got a dog with a lightning bolt mark (our hero), a cat (initial enemy turned friend), and a hamster in a plastic ball (obvious comic relief). I knew all of that before I even took the disc out of the package and slipped it into the spinner.

That said, Bolt gets a lot of things right. First and foremost is Rhino, who is the real star of the movie. Much as Disney writers would later do with Olaf in Frozen, Rhino doesn’t show up until around the second half of the film. That keeps his various antics funny rather than having them become annoying through overuse. I tend to blanch at Disney comic characters because they do tend to be overused and don’t stay funny for long. Rhino stays funny the whole time he’s on screen, which is a huge plus.

The voice work is good throughout as well. Travolta is good as Bolt, although not particularly exceptional. Susie Essman, however, is another great bit of casting. There’s just enough street smart and world weary in her voice to sell the character along with a touch of pain and vulnerability that the character really needs.

I’m not convinced that Bolt is a great movie. I think it’s a good one, perhaps even a very good one. But it’s far too easy to predict all the way through. Knowing the basic plot and that minus the end credits it’s just about 90 minutes long, you can probably predict within a couple of minutes when the expected beats will happen. You know that Bolt will eventually figure out that he doesn’t really have any powers, that he’ll make it all the way back to Hollywood, that there will be an emotional crisis near the end and that, despite his not really having powers, he’ll do something heroic. If you think about how these movies go, you can place those moments within five minutes of their actual occurrence in the film right now even if you’ve never seen it.

Bolt, ultimately, is a solid children’s entertainment movie, but even my John Travolta-obsessed younger daughter has never asked for us to buy it and never expressed much interest in seeing it a second time.

Why to watch Bolt: It’s Disney doing something decent again.
Why not to watch: It hits a lot of the beats you expect.


  1. Bolt looks great and it's a dog movie so it is hard to go wrong (except for Beverley Hills Chihuahua). You are right about the beats, but that is a fault with most Disney films, especially the Princess based ones. They did redo the film after earlier attempts.Thomas Haden Church was entirely cut from the film and his was a second lead role supposedly. Probably story issues got resolved by banking on what works.

    1. Resorting to those natural story moments happens, more than likely, because they work as you say. But the fact that films like Frozen (just to use another Disney animated film) hit the same emotional moments but do so in a way that is very new and unexpected demonstrates that there are ways around them.

      It's true of any genre. There are lots of good and worthwhile movies that rely on those standard story moments, but the really great movies either establish those conventions or break them in ways that still work in the story. Bolt doesn't do that, which results in a movie that is good, but only good.

  2. I liked this movie and didn't have a problem with it being predictable. I only have an issue when people are exclaiming about incredible twists or "you'll never see it coming" reveals that are obvious if you pay attention, or have seen a ton of movies like you and I. In other words, I guess my default position is to expect movies to be predictable and only get bothered when the promise of an unpredictable one does not bear fruit.

    The hamster in the ball was my favorite part of the movie, too. Even from the trailer that was the character I was looking forward to.

    1. Rhino is absolutely the most memorable character from the film.

      I get what you're saying about the predictability. Perhaps I've been spoiled by so many good animated films that seem to break that mold that I'm a little saddened when it feels like filmmakers take the easy road in a medium where they can literally do anything.