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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Bolt (review)

Made of Awesome

I figured I was probably overthinking this, and should trust that it would all make sense, but I couldn’t help it. I knew that Bolt was about a dog who believes he has superpowers and actually fights crime alongside his beloved person, but he’s wrong because he’s just the canine star of a hit TV action show. I thought, How can a dog look at a green screen and see something that’s not there? How can a dog imagine special FX — like the heat ray his eyes supposedly shoot out, or his superbark, which has the power to flip cars over — and then go on to believe what he’s imagining is real?
It sounds silly, but this was a major concern for me, going into Bolt. Because I take my fantasy seriously, and I want the people giving it to me to take it seriously, too.

I was wrong to worry, of course. It spoils nothing to reveal how the writers — Dan Fogelman (Fred Claus, Cars) and Chris Williams (The Emperor’s New Groove, Mulan) (Williams also directs, with Byron Howard) — deal with this seeming conundrum, and it’s essential, actually, to explaining why Bolt is such a pleasure on so many levels. The delightfully clever way in which the film explains Bolt’s cluelessness is emblematic of the delightful, mind-bendy, poignant cleverness of the whole experience.

See, Bolt lives in a kind of doggie Truman Show, in which his human masters go to every extreme to convince the dog that everything he sees is real. Which means, yes, that the Bolt TV series is a wildly expensive bit of fluff to produce, what with the creative team actually staging all those FX and explosions and chases through the city in real time and with live on-set production magic. It’s a fierce and funny parody of a big-budget science fiction action thriller, in fact, that we’re treated to in the first few minutes of Bolt, one that gets even funnier when, in retrospect, we discover how it’s produced. And that becomes an outrageous sendup of Hollywood excess — and in particular Hollywood excess that forgets the emotional side of effective entertainment — which in turns becomes even more ironic when you consider that this is a big-budget Hollywood animated movie making fun, kinda, of itself.

Though not really. Because Bolt the movie has heart and emotion and heartrendingness and sobby moments that you can’t believe you’re crying over, all over it. I didn’t expect to get weepy over this one, and I should have trusted that that would happen, too, because part of the Disney animation renaissance is the fact that the studio has gotten back to ensuring that its films are as sensitive and spirited as they are gorgeous to look at. (If you can see Bolt in 3D, do so — it’s amazing.)

Also included: the funniest joke about styrofoam ever.

So Bolt (voiced by John Travolta: Hairspray, Wild Hogs) escapes from the set of his show, believing that he’s off to rescue his person, Penny (voiced by Miley Cyrus: High School Musical 2, Big Fish), from the clutches of their supervillain archenemy, and when he discovers that his “superpowers” don’t work (more evildoing by the bad guy, of course)… Well, the first thing I thought, as he dizzies himself running into walls he believes he can bust down or trying to leap over things he cannot possibly leap over, was, How awful of those mean Hollywood people to make him think he had superpowers! Bolt could have been killed! It’s all so downright distressing, I tell ya, because Bolt is not a cartoon dog — he’s a real dog, as anyone who’s ever owned a dog or been around a dog or merely loved dogs will tell instantly. His personality, his behavior, even the way he thinks: totally doggy, and totally, irresistably adorable.

And the same goes for the companions he picks up along the way: Mittens the cat (voiced by Susie Essman) is undoubtedly a real cat — the story of how she came to be a streetwise New York alley cat made me sob my eyes out. Rhino the hamster (voiced by Mark Walton: Chicken Little) steals the movie with his fundamentally demented hamsterishness — have you seen how those little guys zoom around those wheels? They’re nuts. It’s hard for me to decide, actually, whether it’s Rhino who steals the movie with his insane enthusiasm — he’s Bolt’s biggest fan, and doesn’t realize either that what he sees on the “magic box” isn’t real — or whether it’s the many hilariously twitchy, essentially pigeon-y pigeons Bolt and Co. keep running into. But no, no: It’s Rhino.

But there’s a beautiful core to the film, too, which revolves around how Bolt learns to lose his delusions and cope with the real world — including getting back to Penny — with the help of Mittens and her grounded cynicism… but also how she learns to temper her cynicism and cope with a world that doesn’t have to be as rough as the hand she’d been dealt. If as, you know, there were a happy middle ground where we can all shed the delusions that hinder us. (Rhino remains deluded, though he’s already happy there.) It all swings beautifully from lovely to silly to lovely again in a way that’s perfectly realized and utterly unique.


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MPAA: rated PG for some mild action and peril

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer

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