(No longer in theaters)
Action/Adventure, Animation, Comedy
Walt Disney Pictures
Nov 15, 2008
The Disney animated blockbuster-to-be Bolt is a delightful family movie, and if I’d seen it as a kid I would have been deeply traumatized. Back then, kid flicks weren’t meta; they didn’t riff on the discontinuity between real life and the artificial universe of TV and movies. They were plain-old fairy tales, parables of self-reliance. Bolt opens with a little girl, Penny, choosing an adorable doggy at a pet shop. So far so standard. (If you don’t want to know the basic premise, stop here.) Then it jumps to the next, fantastical level: It’s five years later, Penny’s scientist father is in the clutches of a megalomaniac, and Bolt is equipped with superpowers to protect his daughter. Cue a rollicking chase and the pulverization of bad guys. Just as we’ve absorbed all this, we’re on to level three. We’ve been watching the filming of a TV show, except (and here’s the final level) Bolt has been kept in a state of ignorance. He does not know he’s not a super-dog and that Penny is never in peril. Yes, this is The Truman Show with talking animals.
Bolt finally settles into an old-fashioned tale of a hero and his sidekicks—here, an emaciated, mouthy female alley cat and an obese, celebrity-worshipping hamster in a clear-plastic exercise ball—on a cross-country journey, with a climax that would comfortably fit into Lassie. But the central question is up to the minute: Will Bolt find out he’s an ordinary (talking) dog and survive that knowledge and discover his essential dogginess? It’s a fascinating trend: state-of-the-art Hollywood fantasies pegged to the notion that state-of-the-art Hollywood fantasies are our chief impediment to being “real.”
I could cavil about the abundance of Hollywood in-jokes (pigeons who are hustling screenwriters) and the cat’s heavy-handed one-liners (“Listen, Cujo … ”). But as Bolt, John Travolta is inspired: His voice still cracks like an adolescent’s, and he has the perfect dopey innocence. Susie Essman gives the cat’s reflexive bitchiness some depth (she’s a hurtin’ hellion), and I have to admit that until I heard Miley Cyrus’s Penny, I underestimated the throaty expressiveness of her voice. Mark Walton (an actual cartoon-voice guy and not a marquee name!) makes the fat hamster (who might have been an irritant) sing. In theaters equipped to show the film in 3-D, your tickets come with glasses, through which the animals look even more huggable.