A Bolt from the blue? Not exactly. True, Disney’s Bolt is the studio’s best animated film since Lilo & Stitch, with a welcome blend of wit, energy and heart that may come as a surprise to viewers who missed it in its disappointing theatrical run (perhaps due to lackluster marketing). But with Pixar honcho John Lasseter now at the helm at Disney, the real surprise would have been if the studio’s product didn’t improve.
Every day without fail, Bolt (John Travolta), a scientifically enhanced super-dog, saves his beloved person, tween adventurer Penny (Miley Cyrus), from the evil designs of green-eyed Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell). Every day, that is, until the day they shoot a cliffhanger. To Penny, it’s just another day on the set of a long-running “Kim Possible”–like TV show … but Bolt, the victim of an elaborate Truman Show–like ruse to make him believe the show is real, is frantic with worry, and busts out of the studio, winding up lost — and bewildered about his missing super powers.
The central conceit is as goofy as Ratatouille’s hair-pulling trick, and Bolt’s confusion bears more than a passing resemblance to Buzz Lightyear’s belief in his own space-rangerhood — a connection enhanced by other points of contact, such as a stray cat’s Jessie-like back story (and, as Peter Chattaway points out, a character who, like Stinky Pete, “spends most of the movie behind plastic”!).
Bolt opens with a bang, with an extended sequence from the TV show that plays like a set piece from a Spy Kids movie, and keeps things moving fast as Bolt’s after-hours rescue effort accidentally lands him inside a cardboard box bound for New York City. There, after a funny run-in with some “Goodfeathers”-like pigeons, he meets Mittens the alley cat (Susie Essman), whom he’s convinced is in league with Dr. Calico. Later they encounter the scene-stealing Rhino (Mark Walton), a cute bundle of fur in a hamster ball who also happens to be Bolt’s number one fan — and who, like Bolt, doesn’t realize it’s all make-believe.
A key part of the film’s success is that Penny, the object of Bolt’s devotion, really is a sweet kid who loves her furry co-star. Penny’s normality (and her mother’s) contrasts with Penny’s hilariously glib and callow agent (Greg Germann), which makes you wonder just how long Penny’s Hollywood career is likely to be. (As is often the case with Hollywood self-mockery, there’s a bit of meta-dissonance here, especially with Penny played by Disney princess and pop star Cyrus.)
It’s not quite Pixar grade, but Bolt blots out tepid memories of the likes of Chicken Little and Home on the Range, standing comfortably beside the likes of Kung Fu Panda and Horton Hears a Who in the race for second-best computer-animated family film of 2008. If you’ve taken a pass on Disney cartoons for the last few years, Bolt is reason enough to give the Mouse another try.
Parents may be interested to know that the movie tie-in toys are equipped with sound and movement as well as gear. Will the toy Blaster say things like “Pimp my ride!” and “That was off the hizook!” like he does in the movie? Will the toy Juarez riff on the Pussycat Dolls line “Don cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me”? Will the toy Darwin say “Yippie kay yay, coffee-maker!”? There’s a click moment waiting to happen in another ten or fifteen years (hopefully not before that).
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.