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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

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.

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
  • JoshDM

    Should I take a thirteen-year-old to see this movie? That supervillain arch enemy sounds scary!

  • MaryAnn

    Are you being snarky, JoshDM? :->

    If not, then it’s hard to imagine a 13-year-old who would be scared by this archvillain, who is clearly meant to be a parody of Hollywood villainy, and is not actually scary at all.

  • S

    It’s always refreshing to read a well-crafted review by someone who actually analyzes the film rather than just spewing prechewed simplistic comparisions. Your review was a pleasure to read.

  • JoshDM

    Are you being snarky, JoshDM? :-)


  • Chris

    I was 50/50 on this movie. I think it’s a lot harder for adults to enjoy, minus the opening, than Meet Robinsons was or any of the Pixar movies. That said I think it was important for Disney Animation to say, hey at heart we are not Pixar we are Disney and we are about entertaining the youth and in doing so teaching them basic life lessons. I think children will love this movie and adults wont have a problem sitting through it. Am I the only one though that is already tired of Disney 3-D animation? It just doesnt really do anything for me I guess. Now Disney please go back and finally make a great 2-D movie that I can be proud of!

  • MaryAnn

    I didn’t feel like I needed to be taught the Life Lesson this one dishes out, but I didn’t feel condescended to with it, either. That’s something worth celebrating: that something that should be obvious to grownups is treated in a way that even those who’ve already gotten the lesson can appreciate anyway.

  • amanohyo

    Wow, this was surprisingly watchable for a modern non-Pixar Disney movie. The best surprise is that in a movie full of of talking animals, none of them are of the annoying stand-up-comic-sidekick variety. In fact, the voice acting of Essman and Walton are the highpoints of the film.

    However, I wouldn’t call anything else about the movie or its execution unique. Although the writing is competent, the plot is painfully by the numbers. Even small children should be able to predict the arc of the story after watching the first fifteen minutes or so. Most adults should be able to predict the movie almost scene by scene all the way the end credits. I guess they didn’t want to be too ambitious out of the gate.

    As a result, this probably isn’t a movie that will stay in anyone’s mind for very long. But I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoyed myself, and Mittens and Rhino had me bawling like a baby during their respective monologues. I’m always a sucker for that cornball stuff. I hear the sad music kick in, and I tell myself, “Don’t fall for it, don’t fall for it” and there I am, thirty seconds later, sobbing about the insane ramblings of an overweight anthropomorphic hamster.

  • amanohyo

    I guess we never see Rhino wet, so I shouldn’t assume he’s (she’s?) overweight… not that there’s anything wrong with that. It might all be poofy hamster fuzz is what I’m trying to get at. I apologize to any hamsters watching this magic box who may have been offended.

  • MaryAnn

    Most adults should be able to predict the movie almost scene by scene all the way the end credits.

    Yes, that’s true. But it doesn’t matter. Because this is all about the characters, not about the plot.

  • amanohyo

    Nothing says a character driven movie can’t have an original plot to boot, but I agree that the characters (esp. Mittens) were interesting enough to make me not really mind the predictable plot so much.

    I hope this movie does well. It’s several orders of magnitude better than the Chihuahua movie (I assume), and it actually earns most of its cheesy emotional moments instead of shoehorning them into a bunch of pop-culture-gag silliness.

    Aaaah, maybe that’s sort of what you were talking about when you mentioned the swinging from silly to lovely. I guess it is a bit unique in that respect… sadly.

  • John

    I absolutely loved this movie. Yeah, it was a little predictable, but I totally agree that the characters make it worth every second. Even the ‘bad guys’. I would have liked to have seen a little more of Dr. Calico out of character, but that’s such a minor critique.

    I got all teary too, but it was a scene towards the end that did it for me. :)

  • okierazorbacker

    MaryAnn, I just got home from taking my 11-year-old daughter and five of her friends to see “Bolt” as the climax of her “Bolt” themed birthday party. The only one who was disappointed was the youngest of the group, who does NOT like Hannah Montana (Miley Cyrus, of course, does the voice of Bolt’s “person.”)

    I loved this movie and, as is my habit, went online after getting home to read reviews. I thought many of the same thoughts you did, before, after, and during the show. It’s a triumph….and after “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” Disney needed some serious redemption in my mind.

  • amanohyo

    I shall make a detailed but not so bold prediction: Bolt will make less money than Beverley Hills Chihuahua in its opening weekend, partially due to the black hole of tween entertainment that is Twilight, but also due to the average American moviegoer’s chronic allergy to any product with understated quality. Word of mouth will help, but ultimately Bolt’s total gross will only barely pass up BHC’s when large numbers of parents purchase this wholesome tale for their delightful spawn at the local Walmart.

    On another note, one aspect of the writing that did sorta impress me was the skillful way Fogelman and Williams parodied the language of Saturday morning cartoons/big budget action movies (which as the movie recognizes, are both kinda the same thing nowadays) in the Bolt television show and Rhino’s dialogue. They made fun of the melodrama, but they weren’t too mean about it. I’d expect nothing less from fans of the A-Team.


    Somehow the decision of Penny’s mom that a wholesome, ordinary family life was worth ever so much more than continuing truckloads of studio and merchandising money didn’t quite strike me as sincere coming from a Disney movie. Kinda like Wall E’s message about the evil overabundance of useless crap (have you been to a toy store lately?).


    Or maybe I’m just jealous of Miley Cyrus…and that’s the last nit I’ll pick.

  • I got all verklempt during Mittens’ backstory. I thought it was cute that she looked like our own tuxedo cat, but to find out she’d been declawed and then abandoned…just like Tobu…too much! BAAAAAAAW!

  • I actually liked this movie more than I thought I would–and I was all prepared to hate it after seeing the trailer.

    Yes, it is a potent antidote to the Beverly Hills Chihuahuas of the world–or even the Marleys & Mes. ;-)

    Of course, the fact that I saw it at a second-run theatre helped but still…

  • PaulW

    Just rented the dvd.

    What I loved most was how they made the animals conform to actual animal behavior: the cats as taunting, snarky creatures of comfort; the dogs as overly devoted, dedicated creatures of action; hamsters as obsessive-compulsives ;).

    Of Course Bolt would believe everything was real, because everyone around ‘his person’ Penny seemed real as well. She was his world. Real dogs are like that: a real dog latches onto a human, loves him/her forever and no matter what. I knew a dog who loved kids so much he lost his leg saving one. During the last few scenes, when Bolt refused to leave Penny… aw man I cried. I mean, I knew as a family cartoon it was gonna end well… but still poor Bolt. Sniff. Aw man I gotta go hug a pet. brb.

  • CaroleM

    Based on the number of overflowing animal shelters in North America, I wish that more adults would take the “life lessons” in this movie to heart.

    I enjoyed Bolt tremendously.

  • MaryAnn

    Based on the number of overflowing animal shelters in North America, I wish that more adults would take the “life lessons” in this movie to heart.

    Oh, so true. Spay and neuter, folks! And take seriously your adoption of a fellow creature. They are not disposable toys to be cast aside when you get tired of them.

  • Disha

    I recently watched Bolt. It is by far the best movie from the house of Disney. The characters re so endearing.

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