Starring: John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, Mark Walton, Malcolm McDowell, James Lipton, Greg Germann, Diedrich Bader, Nick Swardson
Directed By: Byron Howard and Chris Williams
I’ll have to start this review with the admission that I am a full-blown dog lover. I have a two-year-old beagle named Gromit who is my first-ever pet, and my pride and joy. So I fully admit that I’m more susceptible to love a movie with a dog protagonist than others may be, so take that under advisement while reading this.
That said, being a dog lover isn’t exactly a unique characteristic, as there are many of us out there (some of whom might even be more into dogs than I). So giving a movie a recommendation on the basis on how it will appeal to dog lovers isn’t exactly useless. Even people who don’t have dogs or aren’t necessarily dog people have some affection for the creatures, even if its just the idealized version of them. But as a dog lover, let me tell you that you’ll find Bolt a pleasing, rewarding experience from a family film standpoint.
That’s because the animators, writers, and directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams have obviously done their homework when it comes to canine behaviour. The animated protagonist Bolt acts like a real dog, albeit a slightly anthropomorphized one who believes himself to be an action hero. He walks and runs on four legs, is concerned with dog-like things, and takes in the world the way we all envision dogs do. The anthropomorphizing is kept to a minimum, with John Travolta providing his voice that can only communicate with other animals, but Bolt isn’t like other animated animals, who usually act like humans that happen to look like animals. He doesn’t wear clothes, dance, or exist in a world where animals participate in athletic competitions.
Even the film’s central conceit, that Bolt, as the star of an action-packed TV show, believes he is actually a super-powered dog entrusted with protecting his “person” Penny (Miley Cyrus, yet again playing a teen star, this time in animated form), fits in perfectly with how we relate to our dogs. This fake world is his life, so it makes sense to me that he’d believe it all real, given that I have a dog who growls at snowmen and fibreglass statues of dinosaurs as though they are dangerous predators to ward off. So I derived a lot of pleasure from the simple, dog-like qualities of the film, be it Bolt as a puppy attacking his favourite squeeky toy, or his stubborn persistence in trying to apply blunt force to escape unwanted imprisonment (my beagle will probably never scratch his way out of his crate, but that won’t stop him from trying every day).
I also must note that I saw this film in 3D, which probably adds at least a half-star to my rating of the film (if not a full star). Right now, I’d say that if you have the means, go see any movie being offered in full 3D (as opposed to films that simply cram in a few distracting 3D scenes), just to experience it. Eventually, the novelty will wear off as it did with CGI animation or IMAX, but for now, it’s a really unique way to experience a film. In an era where films are available for free online, or where home theatres offer better experiences than some multiplexes, it’s encouraging that Hollywood is coming up with different ways to enhance the theatrical experience. It’s also encouraging that in the case of Bolt, the 3D isn’t treated as a gimmick. This isn’t a movie that merely serves as a vehicle to thrust objects at the screen for the audience to jump at. The 3D feels natural, allowing the viewer to engage in both the background and the foreground.
It also helps that the movie itself is compelling and worthwhile even without the 3D. The overall feel of the film is Pixar-esque in how it creates warm characters in a charming fashion, showing the obvious influence of new Disney animation head (and Pixar founder) John Lasseter. To be clear, Bolt isn’t up to the standards of Pixar classics like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, or WALL-E, but it does fit within their second tier of A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc. (I’d say right in between, to be exact).
Of course, it could be that Bolt feels Pixar-esque because its plot feels borrowed from previous Pixar films. The conceit is a re-working of Toy Story‘s Buzz Lightyear believing himself to be a real Space Ranger (with Mittens the cat playing the role of Woody’s “you… are… a… TOY!!!” to Bolt). Bolt’s cross-country adventure to rescue his owner Penny is similar to Marlin’s quest to save Nemo in Finding Nemo. Even Mittens’ (Susie Essman) back story is similar to that of Jesse in Toy Story 2. Of course, the road movie quest is a familiar trope, so I’m not exactly suggesting plagiarism here, but I do think they consciously or subconsciously borrowed from familiar concepts to create Disney’s best non-Pixar animated features in years.
Not everything works, and this is a film best judged in relation to its target audience (families with children) than one that stands up as great for all ages. As good a job as the film does in making Bolt dog-like, they are less interested in doing the same with the rest of the creatures that make up the cast. The depiction of Mittens is a little less cat-like as Bolt’s is dog-like, and a little more human in her cynicism and protection scams, while Rhino the hamster (Mark Walton) is continually doing things that no hamster could do (with or without the ball). Rhino is the character most obviously inserted for both children and promotional purposes, as he has all the hallmarks of the typical spastic animated sidekick to appear in most American animated films since Robin Williams’ voiced the Genie in Aladdin. He gets the biggest laughs in the trailers for the film, and provides a few more in the film, but doesn’t always straddle the right side of the fun/annoying line.
It’s telling that my favourite moments of the film came not as a result of Rhino’s crazy antics, or the cat and dog bickering of Bolt and Mittens, but instead with Bolt’s silent interactions with Penny. Not only is Bolt more realistic in these scenes, but the film is able to tap into the essential appeal of dogs, in how they can empathically project their feelings through their body language and whimpers, not with the voice of a slumming Hollywood star. The film’s big climax is in silent Bolt mode, and it’s the most exciting, touching, and poignant moment of the film. As WALL-E proved, a lot can be done on film without dialogue, and the best of this film reinforces that idea. The film is a fun ride throughout, but in those silent moments, it manages to squeeze in some genuine pathos to what would otherwise be merely acceptable family fare to elevate the entire experience to something slightly more.