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Bolt

By Willie Krischke – December 6, 2008

Name the Disney movie: lovable but somewhat bland hero becomes estranged from home and family, for reasons that may or not be his fault.Hero embarks on epic journey back to home and family. Along the way, hero meets colorful verbose sidekicks that make up for hero’s lack of personality. Sidekicks alternately help and distract hero from his quest. Climax in epic scene where hero proves himself and erases all doubts about whether family wants him or not. End happily.

Which movie did you guess? The Lion King? Toy Story? Meet the Robinsons? Toy Story 2? Finding Nemo? Happy Feet? The answer is yes, to all of them and more. This tried and true formula never seems to get old for Disney, and, looking at that list, it’s yielded some pretty solid films.My guess would be that it keeps working because it plays on a young child’s basic fears of abandonment and questions about belonging.Someone else—hopefully parents – will have to decide if it’s fun or fair to keep freaking kids out about the same things over and over again.

“Bolt” follows the same formula, while at the same time taking advantage of the recent superhero craze. John Travolta voices the canine superhero star of a action/adventure TV show; only he doesn’t know he’s in a TV show.He thinks his powers are real, and his Penny (Miley Cyrus) is really in danger, every week. Like a really great Method actor, poor Bolt doesn’t know how to stop when the director yells cut. He keeps trying to rescue his person, and eventually ends up on the other side of the country, via an unfortunate altercation with a FedEx box.

The concept–a hero who thinks he has superpowers but really doesn’t–feels like an idea full of comedic possibility, but while watching “Bolt,”I realized that yeah, we actually have seen this before, and from Disney, besides. Buzz Lightyear does the same schtick in “Toy Story,” and he’s way funnier, because he’s a sidekick and is allowed to have more personality than Bolt. Buzz is arrogant and self-satisfied; Bolt can’t afford to be, he’s our hero. So Bolt bumps into stuff, he falls down holes, he can’t bend the steel bars, his superbark is pathetic, but it’s not funny, because it’s not allowed to be.  It has to be sympathetic.

At least he has some decent sidekicks. In too many Disney flicks, the sidekicks are either voiced by Robin Williams or seem to be based on Robin Williams’ standup routine. They are manic, associative, random, sarcastic, and loud. They are funny the first time around, but the law of diminishing returnskicks in pretty quick, and when your kid starts working their routine into your lunchtime, that’s about enough. Bolt’s sidekicks are slightly different, and that’s a blast of fresh air. There’s New York alley cat Mittens (Susie Essman,) who is sarcastic but not manic, and feels very, very New York. She even has a slight Fran Drescher accent. There’s hamster fanboy Rhino (Mark Walton,) who’s manic but not sarcastic, and hilariously lampoons the kind of guys who can give “awesome” six syllables.(Walton is a story artist at Disney, and was just filling in on the mic while Disney looked for a “star” to play the role, but was so good, they decided to keep him. Good move.) Add to that various pigeons who provide local color (the New York pigeons talk like Goodfellas, the L.A. pigeons pitch a script idea,) and you’ve got a pretty solid supporting cast.

Naturally, Bolt and his sidekicks have got to get from one end of the country to the other.  In the process, Bolt learns his powers aren’t real (he takes it rather well, I think) and Mittens, the cat, teaches him how to be a dog. None of this is really very interesting, but “Bolt” makes up for it with consistently great action sequences. Turns out that even without superpowers, Bolt is a pretty special dog. Who’d have guessed? Still, the action here is sharper and smoother than in most action flicks.

“Bolt,”like so many Disney movies, is occasionally funny, mildly charming, harmless, entertaining, predictable, enjoyable, forgettable.Go back up to that list of movies at the top:there are a few I’d rather watch again than this one, and a few I definitely wouldn’t.“Bolt” is a serviceable addition to the kids’ catalog, one I’d be happy to put on to keep a 4 year old occupied for a few hours, but probably not one I’d take an 8 year old to see in the theater.

Recommended

  • if you love the Disney formula, and loved more than 75% of the movies on that list.
  • if you love dogs, especially cute little sparkplug white dogs.
  • if you need to keep the kids busy while you clean the house.
Not Recommended
  • if you didn’t love more than 75%  of the movies on that list, and think the Disney formula is getting old.
  • if you’re looking for the next Wall-E or Ratatouille.

 

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