November 24, 2008

Bolt Above-Average, If Predictable, Dog Tale

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The Truman Show was a movie with a great premise: film a reality show about a man who lives his life as if he were a normal everyday person, unaware his world is a set and his intimate details primetime entertainment. Although a wonderful send up of Hollywood and artistry gone wrong, one thing prevented The Truman Show from scaring the viewer as much as it might have. After a point, the suspension of disbelief was left in the theatre as we sighed in relief, and said: “But someone would blow the whistle. That could never happen. Not really. Not to a person.”
Disney, although perhaps unintentionally, raises a counter-argument that sidesteps those ethics. What if the subject weren’t a person, but an animal? What if we convinced an animal that the plot of a television show was in fact reality?
Hollywood could get away with it, because it wasn’t a human. As long as the guidelines for ethical treatment of animals was followed, a dog, for example, could be tricked into believing it was a crime-fighter. Or a superhero? Sure. And that’s the premise of Bolt, the newest computer-animated film from Disney.
Except the film doesn’t feel or look like what we’ve come to expect from Disney or DreamWorks. Bolt resembles the best of that other animation studio reputed for genius: Pixar.
The plot is worthy of Pixar: Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is the eponymous hero of his own TV series, on which he plays a canine genetically engineered to wield super powers like speed and strength, and the inimitable SuperBark, a sonic boom-inducing howl that does to an approaching convoy what the aliens do to Los Angeles in Independence Day (an admittedly cool sequence). Bolt’s job is to be the sidekick to Penny (Miley Cyrus), a girl who fights criminal masterminds like the green-eyed man, Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell of TV’s Heroes).
Bolt, of course, is the Truman of this premise, and the studio (and it’s faux-artiste director) is going out of its way to ensure total realism to affect a sort of “animal method acting” out of Bolt. No one cares about the dog’s say in the matter, especially not Penny’s agent (Greg Germann, in a hilarious sendup of Hollywood types). When the network arrives to complain, stating that no amount of realism can change the hackneyed serial plotline of the show, the writers decide to spice things up by staging a “kidnapping” of Penny for a rote cliffhanger. Bolt thinks Penny is actually stolen, and escapes from the studio to “find her,” accidentally falling into a crate and shipping himself to New York while the production is halted.
The rest of the plot is thoroughly predictable. Of course, Bolt must get back to Penny and Hollywood. And of course, he is not a super-dog, and will inevitably realize this as he tries to use his powers. Dr. Calico employs cats as pets, and so Bolt will distrust any he sees, including Mittens, an alley cat-turned mob boss that runs her own empire over city pigeons (whose regional mannerisms are hilarious). The pigeons use Bolt to thwart her operation, but Bolt has other ideas. He ties Mittens up, and forces her to take him to Penny, since, of course, all cats work for Dr. Calico. The road trip begins.
As the story progresses, the cat and dog have deep conversations about whether Bolt is really a superhero or not. What makes all of this work is the dead seriousness of Bolt’s resolve. The film uses the comedic nature of this tone, and the playful dramatic irony parodies the intense tension felt by actual TV heroes like Jack Bauer or Superman. A scene where Bolt believes Styrofoam is his personal Kryptonite is used to great effect by Mittens.
And then along comes the fan-boy, in the form of a hamster in a ball, appropriately named Rhino (Disney voice actor Mark Walton), who loves the TV character of Bolt so much that it has inspired the inner kung-fu action hero-cliché nerd within him. Imagine The Office’s Dwight Schrute as played by Jack Black. In a ball. The hamster steals the show with hilarious lines of over-the-top macho seriousness as delivered by an adorable hamster with a squeaky voice.
Does Bolt make it all the way back to Hollywood, realize his delusions, become a real dog, bond with Mittens, interplay humorously with Rhino and save the day? It’s a Disney movie, folks.
The plot doesn’t matter, though. What matters is the attention to detail. The animation is ridiculous. Every individual hair is life-like and real. The animals are drawn to maximize cuteness and, combined with the lushness of their visual texture, it takes restraint to avoid literally hugging the screen. Hard. The opening scene itself, the origin story of the TV series, where Penny picks Bolt up at the pet store, is almost manipulative in how it affects our sympathy for adorable animals.
And the action scenes are expertly directed, simultaneously shot to evoke tension and thrill — just like in The Incredibles — while simultaneously throwing in enough slow motion and dramatic music to lampoon 24 and other shows that do it for real. Smoke, shading, lighting, makeup and facial expression are animated with enough detail to give Wall-E stiff competition for the Animated Feature Oscar.
It’s tempting to write this film off as a kids’ movie. But, in the grand Disney tradition, Bolt is for everyone. It reminds us of the honor of heroism, and it probes the meaning of what it might mean to portray a hero on TV; to inspire heroism in the everyday lives of people. And it comments on the ethics of reality television and method acting.
Pretty deep stuff for something G-rated. And it avoids the easy stereotyping of movies like Aladdin, aside from the regional accents of the pigeons around the country. One can wait in dread for a scene where the movie makes a knowing wink to the audience that it’s Travolta voicing Bolt, and put the dog in awkward sequence parodying Saturday Night Fever. But Bolt is a good movie, a new high for Disney.