I once had a conversation with my college film professor about the movie Monsters, Inc. Like all Pixar films, Monsters was designed to be viewed by kids, yet was also a rewarding tale for adults. But one part of the film always stuck out in my mind: The moment when, in the middle of a wintry wasteland, the monster Sully turns his back on fellow monster Mike to pursue Boo, the human toddler that has become Sully’s ward. Upon my first viewing of the film, this moment was disquieting because, throughout the movie, we had seen the outrageous extent to which Mike was willing to extend his goodwill for the sake of his relationship with Sully. The two had presumably known each other for years, and for Sully to press on without Mike, to give up their friendship to in the pursuit of this girl with whom he’d just recently become acquainted always irked me. What type of message was this film trying to send? Of course, I was young and foolish back then, and my professor swiftly explained to me the error of my ways: Monsters Inc. was not, primarily, a movie about friendship; it was an adoption film. Sully had decided that Boo would be his daughter, and there was something transcendent in that decision, a parental bond that could not be denied even in the light of a friendship forged over years of familiarity and co-existence. Coming from a professor who had adopted a child of his own, this idea struck a particularly meaningful chord in me.
At its core, Disney’s new animated film Bolt is a movie about adoption. Through a clever premise and some great voicework from the leads, it attempts to say something profound about loyalty and devotion, and it mostly succeeds. Bolt (John Travolta) is one of the biggest television stars in the world…only he doesn’t know it. In his own television show, he’s a super-powered dog who fights crime alongside his real-life owner Penny (Miley Cyrus). In reality, he’s a normal dog who’s been tricked into believing his outlandish superhero backstory so that he can maintain a plausible level of emotion while on screen. But when Bolt gets accidentally air-mailed to New York City, he must find his way back to his owner in LA with the help of a plucky cat, Mittens (played by Susie Essman), and an overenthusiastic hamster (Mark Walton). Along the way, he’ll struggle with the apparent loss of his powers and discover the true level of his devotion to Penny (i.e. his “person”).
Virtually all the supporting characters in Bolt are completely one-note, from the on-the-nose parody of Penny’s Hollywood agent (Greg Germann) to Bolt’s director (played characteristically and deliciously by James Lipton). Accordingly, the degree to which they are amusing is inversely related with the amount of time they are on screen (the Hamster character, Rhino, wore particularly thin on my nerves as the film went on). The only reason the movie works as a whole is due to the good work of John Travolta as Bolt and Susie Essman and Mittens. Travolta, whose career has spiked up and down dramatically ever since Pulp Fiction, acquits himself surprisingly well as the titular hero. Although I was expecting to hear a younger voice come out of Bolt’s mouth, Travolta (who is 54) was able to convey a pathos that fit Bolt’s arc rather well, especially as the movie builds to an emotional climax. Meanwhile, Essman’s Mittens is hilarious as the “straight man” to Bold’s deluded self, yet she also proves that there’s slightly more depth and tragedy to her character than you would think. Essman really helps to hold the film together and her New York accent is as impeccable as it is appropriate for her character.
There’s a lot to like in Bolt, which is why I’d encourage anyone to see it. The over-the-top opening chase sequence is wonderful fun, and the film’s overarching message is utterly wholesome. There is also the matter of the pigeons in this film, who are unbelievably amusing at providing the local flavor of each region that Bolt travels through (they are the character equivalent of the penguins in the Madagascar series, perhaps one of the only amusing elements from those films). Yet while Bolt reaches for the greatness of a Pixar film, and comes quite close to that standard, it ultimately relies too much on easy jokes and shallow characters to attain it. It’s a great film for the family, or even for a date, but I don’t think it’s one I’ll be revisiting very often.
[I should also mention that I saw the film in Digital 3D and while I was wowed by the opening set piece, the rest of the film didn't really use 3D very noticeably (perhaps that was the point?). Occasionally, it served to play with the audience's perception of depth of field fairly effectively, but aside from that, I didn't really notice the 3D at all. This is hopefully the way that 3D will be used in the future, not drawing attention to itself, but subtly enhancing what you see on screen. Still, while I'd wholeheartedly recommend the 3D version, I definitely think the film would probably be just as enjoyable in 2D.]
Despite my qualms, Bolt still manages to cross a threshold of emotional involvement that any Disney film should envy. There’s a moment in the film when Bolt must decide between his friends and his “person”. But even as he makes his choice, we know that it’s a decision that’s already been woven into his being. Bolt’s loyalty is that of a child for its parent, a loyalty that goes beyond mere blood ties. It is an emotion that is as primal as it is all-surpassing. And the way it is ultimately resolved is guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings of even the most jaded moviegoer. In the end, that may be Bolt’s greatest super power: As an animated dog, he somehow found a way to touch human hearts.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
Discuss: What did you think of Bolt?
You can reach David Chen at davechensemail(AT)gmail.com