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November 24, 2008 |

By TK Burton | Film | November 24, 2008 |

Here’s a short list of some things that annoy me: Disney movies not affiliated with Pixar. Scientology. Tween and teen bubble gum pop stars. Crowds. Children. So how did I, childless, crotchety, misanthropic enochlophobe that I am, end up in a giant crowded multiplex movie theater on a Friday night, to see the latest Non-Pixar Disney production starring a Disney Channel teen superstar and one of the prodigal sons of Scientology? I’ll tell you why: that goddamn hamster.

Bolt, the newest animated film from Walt Disney Studios, is by no means a Disney classic. It’s yet another in a long line of animated films that feature aggressive marketing campaigns designed to capture adult interest through clever dialogue, smart writing and slightly more mature themes. In fact, there were times while I was watching it when I wondered if young children would actually enjoy parts of it at all. It’s not that it’s not an amusing film — it is. It has all of the elements that should entertain the wee ones - vivid animation, wild action sequences, and silly, irreverent humor. Yet, it seems like at times it was trying a little too hard to impress the adults.

For those who haven’t turned on a television in the last three months, Bolt is the story of the eponymous dog who is the star of a weekly television series about a genetically altered superdog (voiced by John Travolta) and his owner (the voice of Miley Cyrus). The catch is that Bolt doesn’t realize that the show is fiction, and that the adventures he romps through on a weekly basis are taking place on a stage. He truly believes that he has powers like super bark (capable of knocking over whole armies), and that he can bend steel bars and smash cars. The network realizes that the dog has been duped, and does everything in their power to maintain that fiction. Eventually, the show’s storyline calls for Penny to be kidnapped. Bolt, desperate to rescue his would-be owner (or his “person”), escapes from the stage and heads off towards adventure. Along the way, he picks up a dour, reluctant cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) who was previously living in a New York alley running a protection racket for pigeons, and Rhino (Mark Walton), a lunatic hamster living in an RV park who has a serious case of hero worship. Along the way, Bolt must deal with the truths about himself, his owner and the world around him.

The good news is that Bolt is, for the most part, pretty entertaining fare. It’s light, breezy stuff with the occasional serious moments thrown in, although it ramps up the melodrama towards the ending. Additionally, other than Bolt and Penny, the rest of the cast are relative no-names, so you aren’t constantly plagued by the irritation of forever picturing the real actors faces whenever words are spoken. It did happen for me a bit with Travolta — he’s an unusual choice for the role. Given the character is supposed to be a cute, overly enthusiastic doggie, the voice of Vincent Vega is a bit incongruous. Cyrus isn’t particularly bothersome, but then again, I don’t watch many Disney Channel productions — come to think of it, I’m pretty certain that this was actually the first time I’ve heard her voice, spoken or sung. That said, she does a serviceable job as Penny — affable, cute and manages to sound like a young girl who genuinely loves her dog.

The truth is that the real stars of the show are Rhino and Mittens — no surprise given Disney’s penchant for creating wisecracking, dryly clever sidekicks. They’re clearly there to provide some adult comic relief, and they’re pretty good. Unfortunately, as I suspected, most of Rhino’s best stuff is given away in the numerous trailers we’ve been bombarded with in the last couple of months, but Walton’s voice work is nonetheless great. As a hamster obsessed with the “Bolt” television show, he seizes the opportunity for adventure, never giving a thought his own limitations — the fact that he’s a tubby rodent in a plastic ball is never an obstacle in his mind. As such, he gives the film genuine moments of hilarity, the faux secret agent hamster who spouts spy movie and tough guy clich├ęs and charges headlong into danger. The dichotomy there is well played and thoroughly entertaining — I just wish I hadn’t seen it 100 times before entering the theater. It’s a shame, really. The hamster is going to be the big draw for some people, and it’s a bit of a letdown to realize you’ve already seen most of his best parts. What surprised me is that Essman’s Mittens is the real highlight; her dry, nasal voice is the right compliment to her portrayal of the unwilling companion that Bolt basically catnaps to help him find Penny. She plays the perfect counter to the overeager, nutty Rhino - a disinclined, anxious feline who would rather avoid humans altogether. The film goes through a few emotional points, and Mittens’s moments are easily the most affecting.

The animation is a mixed bag. Yes, its bright colors and diverse palette make for keen eye candy. However, in this day and age, it’s tough for conventional animation to compete with the Pixar juggernaut. The photorealism of some of the backdrops are indeed impressive, and the action sequences are thoroughly entertaining — particularly the animated fires and explosions which provide a gripping addition. The character animations are only okay, however. Penny and the other humans are relatively drab, stock animations — nothing you haven’t seen in other animated features. The animals fare much better, given a wider range of emotions and the proper rendering to make it convincing. It’s also shot in 3-D, which is the version I saw. It was fun, but overall unremarkable. There are a few money shots that got some “oohs,” but overall it felt like an expensive gimmick.

Bolt is a fun, clever picture that will probably do boffo business at the box office this holiday season. It’s not going to find a place anywhere near the top, or even the middle, of the pantheon of animated classics, but it should entertain the kiddies and provide some good laughs for the grown-ups. The plot is as simple as can be, though folks might find its climax a teeny bit emotionally manipulative — animals and children in jeopardy just doesn’t sit well with some. But even that is over quickly and the triumphant result makes the boo-boo all better. At the end of the day, Bolt is 90 minutes of cotton candy; it’s sweet and enjoyable, but ultimately not too memorable.

TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.

You Ain't Nothin' But a Hound Dog

Bolt / TK

Film | November 24, 2008 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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