Bolt has the singular distinction of being the first non-Pixar animated film from Disney since the merger that installed John Lasseter as the head of the animation department. His influence definitely shows, as it is a step up from other recent offerings from the studio, including Meet the Robinsons and Chicken Little. At the same time, it also shows that Pixar is not the Lasseter show; the studio's success can be attributed to the collaboration of an entire group of creative minds. But we aren't here for Pixar discussion, we are here for the latest Disney release, Bolt, a movie that builds up immense amounts of good will based on the solid writing, while remaining well within the realm of the expected.
The story, from screenwriters Dan Fogelman (Fred Claus, Cars) and Chris Williams (The Emperor's New Groove, Mulan), bears more than a passing resemblance to Pixar's breakout 1995 hit Toy Story (coincidentally directed by John Lasseter). Both films involve characters that believe the world is a different place than it really is and rely on other characters to remove the blinders from their eyes, thus revealing the real world for what it is while working together to attain a similar goal. The comparison is apt and it does sap Bolt from having any feeling of originality, but that does not matter as the script is lively, the characters stand on their on, and it is just flat out enjoyable regardless of your age.
In addition to Toy Story comparisons, you will also find a healthy dose of The Truman Show, as well as touches of Inspector Gadget, The Six-Million Dollar Man, and probably a few others that I missed. All of them blend nicely into a story that's centered on the tried and true theme of believing in oneself.
As Bolt opens we are introduced to a playful puppy more interested in a chew-carrot than in performing for the people walking by. This changes when a young girl picks him out of the puppy crowd. Time jumps ahead five years and we are dropped into the middle of an action sequence. Bolt (John Travolta) and Penny (Miley Cyrus) are battling an evildoer with a penchant for cats named Dr. Calico who has kidnapped Penny's father, complete with the bad intentions of a Bond villain. It is up to our heroic pup and person duo to set things right.
It is a dynamic and humorous sequence where Bolt displays all of his superpowers, including speed and heat vision. However, it is revealed that Bolt is the star of a popular television series and the dog does not even know it. There is a great sequence with the director (James Lipton) explaining just how important it is to hide reality from Bolt. It all makes sense, but it is also a little sad that Bolt cannot be allowed to know what life is like outside the show, that everything is not a matter of life or death.
Well, one thing leads to another and Bolt gets out of his protected trailer and is inadvertently shipped across the country. Alone and loose in the real world, Bolt sets out to find Penny and the evil man with the green eye (Calico). To that end, Bolt intends to use all of his available powers to reach his goals. Unfortunately, it turns out that his powers are little more than special effects that he has been led to believe in all his life, which leads directly into the greatest Styrofoam joke ever.
Before long, he is teamed with a streetwise and cynical cat named Mittens (Susie Essman). Together they begin a journey across the country, one that Mittens has no interest in. Partway through their journey they meet Rhino, a chubby hamster with a television addiction and a particularly fierce attachment to Bolt — he will do anything for the dog. Rhino believes, like Bolt does, that the powers are real and is always looking forward to seeing them used.
The story is very predictable, you can almost see all it coming — from Bolt being sent across the country, to meeting sidekicks, to comical adventures, to a mid-movie montage, all the way to the inevitable teary reunion. Fortunately, that's not what the story is really about. It is much more about the critter characters and their personal journeys than it is the overt adventure.
It is a wonderful journey as Bolt learns what the real world actually is and how he can use his real strengths to his advantage, that not having super powers is not a detriment at all. Likewise, Mittens is also on a personal journey, learning that the world does not have to be as tough as she is making it out to be, learning to get over her abandonment issues. Rhino, well, I think he is just along for the ride as he is perfectly happy within his own skin. Isn't that all that any of us want?
The movie has fun taking some jabs at Hollywood and agents, nothing terribly insightful, but definitely worth laughing at. There are also colorful characters to meet along the way; in particular, groups of pigeons, all twitchy and talkative, make priceless appearances.
I have to say this movie is fun, and I think the fact it is not a summer release, with all of the gigantic expectations that go along with that, has allowed it to be better than it would have been. There is a loose, relaxed quality as if the creative team did not have the entire Mouse House on their backs expecting absolute greatness. You would be surprised the effect that something like that can have.
Bottom line. Whatever the case may be, Bolt is an absolutely enjoyable experience that does not suffer from its familiarity. It survives on good characters, humor, and looks great in the 3D presentation without relying on gimmicky shots of things coming out of the screen. Well worth your time, especially if you are taking your family.