Thursday, February 20, 2014
As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.
Bolt doesn't exactly leap out of the Disney catalogue as a must-see or a classic in the making. If you look at the films that immediately preceded Disney's 49th animated feature, especially those since they abandoned hand-drawn animation with Home on the Range, they aren't all that encouraging: Chicken Little (which is actually underrated) and Meet the Robinsons (which is not). If you don't look at those films and consider it on its own, anticipation was still pretty muted, depending in part on how you felt about John Travolta and Miley Cyrus.
With the benefit of a few years' hindsight, the movie takes on a more favorable glow. Its co-director (Byron Howard) and head of story (Nathan Greno) were the co-directors on Disney's new classic, Tangled, which was released just two years later. Bolt isn't in Tangled's league ... but neither is it in Meet the Robinsons'.
The story of Bolt, the character, is actually a bit like that of another deluded hero from the Disney canon, Buzz Lightyear. Like Buzz, Bolt thinks he's got powers and an importance in the grand scheme of things that he doesn't have. Bolt (Travolta) is a canine actor on a network TV show run by creative forces who are big believers in Stanislavski's method. In other words, they get such a believable performance out of the dog -- a character with enhanced special powers, who is always saving his owner Penny (Cyrus) from evil forces -- because the dog doesn't think he's acting. Anyone who drops a boom mike into the shot is summarily fired, because the dog might see the mike and figure out he's not a superhero.
Well, the dog doesn't ever figure it out, and on a misguided mission to save the real Penny, he ends up in a box shipped across country to New York. Let's assume the box had some breathing holes, because Bolt emerges on the other side of the country, thinking he's still trying to work out the evil plot that saw Penny captured on the show. A sly New York alley cat (voice of Susie Essman) doesn't buy Bolt's story for a minute, but they meet a much more devoted disciple of the superdog as they make their way back across country, in the person of a hamster trapped inside a spinning translucent ball (voice of Mark Walton). Whether Bolt gets back to Penny, or has his equivalent of Buzz Lightyear's "clearly I will go sailing no more" song, or both, is up to the movie to let us know.
Answer: it's both. Sure, it's not too difficult to telegraph the key plot developments. But that doesn't mean the details along the way aren't executed well. One such detail is Essman, Jeff Garlin's brassy wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Essman has just about staked a claim to iconic status as the bitchy New Yawker always complaining and gesticulating, and her persona fits surprisingly well inside the world-weary cat who reluctantly decides to help Bolt find his way home. She's the perfect dose of sarcastic realism to accompany Bolt's earnest idealism, and she steals every scene she's in. She's in most of the scenes, so she really steals the movie.
As far as Travolta goes, it's a surprisingly difficult performance to pick at. He hasn't been making many interesting career choices in about the last, oh, decade, but he gives a pretty darn soulful performance as the dog who thinks he has a "superbark" and can jump over tall buildings in a single bound. His inevitable realization that he had significant artificial help on these feats is executed touchingly.
Kudos also to Disney for casting one of its own story artists in the role of Rhino the hamster. It's something they've done before, where the voice someone internal performed, to assist in the early animation stages, worked out so well that they just went with it for the final product. You'll listen to Rhino and try to figure out which standup comedian it is, but you'll come up empty.
No one will watch Bolt expecting to be surprised by a lot that happens, and they won't be. But the movie does have a couple clever tricks, such as withholding the fact that it's all a TV show for the first four or five minutes, before slowly starting to reveal the telltale props and equipment. Even when it's not particularly clever, though, it's still plenty satisfying.