screenplay by Dan Fogelman, Chris Williams
directed by Byron Howard, Chris Williams
by Walter Chaw What counts as a revolution for Disney animation nowadays is tellingly only a shadow of Pixar's gracefully loaded pictures. It demonstrates that any film completed under the supervision of John Lasseter can't be that bad, but also that all the things wrong with The Mouse over the last couple of decades won't clear up with just one picture. Bolt isn't a bad start, though, handling in its light, rote way a couple of nice moments with orphaned cat Mittens (voiced by Susie Essman) that remind of Jessie's heartache from Toy Story 2 and a few well-paced action sequences that recall a superhero highlight reel from The Incredibles (speaking of films that need a sequel). The point of greatest interest is that Bolt represents the second major movie this year after Tropic Thunder that has as its protagonist an actor who doesn't realize he's no longer on a soundstage. (Collective commentary on the end of our time in Oz or Kansas?) Even without a deeper interest in answering the questions that it asks (in sharp contrast to the introspective, almost silent WALL·E), it's still light years ahead of Disney's spate of racist, misanthropic entertainments and/or direct-to-video sequels that cynically transform their Vault™ into a McDonald's franchise.
Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) believes that he's embroiled, with owner Penny (Hannah Montana), in a mortal superhero/arch-villain struggle with Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell), so when the TV show in which he unknowingly stars introduces its first cliffhanger, Bolt escapes his trailer into the Real World to save his human companion. Barely qualifying as a critique or satire of bad television (unlike Tropic Thunder, a satire of bad cinema), Bolt is the Disney-specific inter-species buddy comedy, teaming Bolt with Mittens and manic, ball-encased hamster Rhino (Mark Walton) as they make their way across the country to the heroic set-piece that will set things a-right in the dog's nuclear, domesticated world. The old saw of animal vs. animal-control officer is resurrected here, as is the daring escape from a minimum-security pound. Slapstick is the general rule of the day, with satirical targets (RV parks, fast-talking Hollywood agents, screenwriting pigeons) whizzing by and only a listless swat offered in their passing. It's not a smart film, particularly, but it doesn't do anything badly and, most surprisingly, it isn't irritating. It's as smooth and inoffensive as a laxative, and the product of the experience is just as easily flushed.
There's something to be said for a film that doesn't abuse its 3-D technology but instead shows restraint, careful to do something that translates easily to 2-D. (Either that or it doesn't have the wit to take full advantage of the bells and whistles.) There's something to be said, too, for a film that doesn't hate women, doesn't present Native Americans as earth children turning into bears, and doesn't preach the self-esteem dogma to extreme distraction. If its funny moments are seldom laugh-out-loud and its exciting moments are seldom heart-thumping and its touching moments are hardly tearjerkers, at least there are funny and exciting and touching moments. Bolt is almost the very definition of workmanlike product--but if competence and evidence of a working morality and intelligence are the extent of what Lasseter can infuse Disney with, let's not underestimate the significance of a workmanlike Disney animation. If only Lasseter could tackle John Travolta next (Bolt is the best Travolta vehicle in over a decade), but let's face it: he's good--he's not a miracle worker. Originally published: November 26, 2008.