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3 reviews, 5 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Kinder, Gentler "White Dog"
3 stars

If “Bolt” had been made 10 or 15 years ago, a time when you didn’t have a new animated feature film hitting the multiplexes seemingly every few weeks, there is a possibility that I might have enjoyed it a little more than I do right now. However, it lacks that final burst of inspiration that might have transformed it from the middling time-killer that it is into something a bit more substantial for audiences of all ages. Instead, it simply offers 90 minutes of empty-headed entertainment of the type that you have seen a hundred times before and while it is better than many films of its ilk, it never quite comes into its own as a worthwhile experience in its own right.

When we first get a look at the title character, a seemingly ordinary pooch (voiced by John Travolta) who has been genetically enhanced by a scientist in order to protect the man’s daughter, Penny (Miley Cyrus), from the forces of the evil Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell) and his minions that are out to get her as part of some nefarious plan. After we see the pooch decimate the bad guys with his super-speed, super-strength, heat vision and the infamous super-bark, we discover that things aren’t quite what they seem--all of the adventures have merely been a part of a television series named “Bolt” and Bolt’s superpowers are all the result of elaborate special effects that are added in later. The trick is that the poor pooch doesn’t realize that he is part of a show. In a move that you probably shouldn’t speculate upon for too long, he has been raised since puppyhood on a soundstage and has been led to believe that everything that he does is 100% real--the show is even shot entirely in one take in order to create the illusion that it is really happening. Although he doesn’t know it, the only thing about his life that is absolutely genuine is the love between him and Penny, a perfectly well-adjusted child star whose only real dream is to take Bolt out of the studio for a weekend just so that she can play with him like one would with a normal dog.

Through circumstances too elaborate to go into here, Bolt is accidentally shipped from the friendly confines of the studio in Hollywood to the mean streets of Manhattan, where he discovers to his horror that his powers no longer work (apparently as a result of exposure to the fiendish creation known as Styrofoam packing peanuts). Nevertheless, armed with little more than the delusion that he is indeed a superdog, he vows to rescue Penny from the danger that he is certain that she is in at the hands of Calico. To aid him, he accosts a snarky alley cat, Mr. Mittens (Susie Essman) to help lead him to Calico’s lair--of course, she has no idea of what he is talking about but when she sees his collar with a Hollywood address, she agrees to help take him there despite his weirdo babbling about superpowers and the like. It is only after a detour in an Ohio trailer park, where they pick up Rhino (Mark Walton), a hamster who is obsessed with Bolt’s show, does she begin to realize what she is dealing with. Eventually, it gradually begins to dawn on Bolt that he many not be the dog he thought he was after all. Nevertheless, he refuses to believe that Penny’s love was just an act and he continues to press on his journey to find her--a good thing too, since the climax involves him arriving in time to hopefully rescue her from a special effects mishap during shooting (caused by the lame replacement pup forced on her by the network) that finds her trapped in a burning soundstage while helicopters are dropping on her willy-nilly. (At this point, I had intended to included an incredibly nasty, though fairly amusing, comment at this point, but in the name of common decency, I have chosen to delete it.)

The premise of “Bolt,” which seems to consist of equal parts “The Incredible Journey,” “The Truman Show” and “White Dog,” is interesting enough, I suppose, and in the right hands--such as the Pixar people--I can see how it could have possibly developed into the kind of smart family film that would provide enough laughs and spills for the kids and enough emotional depth for older viewers. Alas, even though this is the first animated film produced entirely in-house by Disney since Pixar head John Lasseter took over the creative reins, the film never quite makes it to the next level. Once the basic conceit is established, the screenplay never really develops it any further to explore the character of Bolt and his discovery that he isn’t quite the dog that he thought he was. Of course, some of you may be thinking that I am asking for a little too much psychological depth from a cartoon but if you will recall, the original “Toy Story” managed to effectively mine Buzz Lightyear’s existential angst upon the discovery that he was merely a toy without mucking things up too much. What is exceptionally weird is that you would think that Bolt’s discovery of the reality of his situation would serve as both the emotional focus point of the film and the source of some of its funniest gags--imagine him watching himself on television and discovering that he now has the voice of Patrick Warburton--but both are essentially sloughed off in order to concentrate on the cross-country hijinks that we have seen a zillion times before and which pretty much bring the midsection of the story to a grinding halt. The section of the story isn’t helped much by the fact that the relationship between Bolt and Mittens is too adversarial for far too long and by the time they realize that they do need each other after all, it is a little too late in the proceedings for anyone to care. The grand finale is also a big problem as well--it shifts the story in an action-heavy direction with a final sequence that will come across as too frantic and distracting from the main story for older viewers and far too intense for younger ones.

At the same time, while “Bolt” doesn’t really work overall as a complete film package, it does contain a few minor charms here and there that I liked. Although the film takes place in contemporary times, as evidenced by the hi-tech nature of the glimpses we get of the “Bolt” TV show (which plays like Jerry Bruckheimer’s most deranged fever dream brought to life), the vision of America that we are treated to during the bulk of the film is of an appealingly retro Sixties design that is both striking and lovely. While the 3-D effects are not as immersive as they were in such films as “Beowulf” or the “Nightmare Before Christmas” retrofit, the film does not make a pain out of itself by constantly throwing things at the camera--by using such restraint, the process doesn’t wear out its welcome and when it does come time for something to pop out, there is more of an impact. And while I can’t say that the central characters, animal or otherwise, did much of anything for me--the Penny character seems like a squandered opportunity to satirize child stars and their entourages (here, the only misbehaved person is Penny’s craven agent and he is painted in such grotesque terms that you wonder why she and her salt-of-the-earth mother hired him in the first place)--I must admit that pretty much everything involving Rhino the hamster had me in stitches. Although he may not be nearly as well-known as his co-stars, Mark Walton (who is actually a behind-the-scenes person at Disney) nails the part perfectly and proves once again that it isn’t as important to get a famous person to do a voice in an animated film as it is to get the right person for the part. (There is one moment in which Rhino plaintively runs down an empty street in his ball in desperate pursuit of his friends that is both the single funniest moment of the film and arguably the most touching as well.)

As I said before, “Bolt” isn’t particularly terrible by any means--I would take it over “Madagascar 2” any day of the week and it is infinitely better than Disney’s last missing dog movie, the execrable “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.” More importantly, it is bright and colorful, not particularly offensive to the senses--the main character is a dog and yet I don’t recall a single poop joke--and little kids will probably eat it up. And yet, when you compare it to something as majestic as “WALL*E,” a film touched the heart and the head as well as the eye, it can’t help but coming up short. That is the kind of film that sticks with viewers of all ages forever while “Bolt” is the kind that passes the time quickly enough but winds up fading from memory as soon as it is over.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17383&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/21/08 00:00:00
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User Comments

7/09/17 Suzanne A sweet story; Mittens was hysterical. 4 stars
12/24/09 Dr.Lao Keep your "hip" and "sassy" comedies and give me some funnny ones please! 2 stars
11/29/08 Samantha Pruitt touching and funny, Mittens is a great character! 4 stars
11/25/08 brian Take the preteens. You might like it better than them. 4 stars
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  21-Nov-2008 (PG)
  DVD: 24-Mar-2009


  DVD: 24-Mar-2009

Directed by
  Chris Williams
  Byron Howard

Written by

  John Travolta
  Miley Cyrus
  Susie Essman
  Chloe Moretz

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