Saturday, February 27, 2010

#48: Bolt (2008)

Third up from Disney's CG department is "Bolt," which features the super-powered exploits of the eponymous dog as he works with his owner Penny to rescue her father from the clutches of the diabolical Green-Eyed Man. One small detail here though, it's all just the high-concept premise for a popular (and EXTREMELY elaborate) TV show, helmed by a director who wants to keep the dog's method acting by making him believe it's all real. Trouble arises when Bolt ends up released off the set and half-way across the country. Naive and deluded, Bolt is no match in the real world by himself, so he enlists the help of a reluctant cat Mittens, who he drags along in his venture back to California. Along their way they also meet Rhino, an energetic little hamster who is Bolt's #1 fan. It's then that Mittens figures out why Bolt thinks he's a superdog, and must convince him otherwise if they have any hope of surviving the journey.
These last three movies are very indicative of the progressing regime changes behind the scenes at Disney. With "Little," it was the bottom of the barrel, low, pandering, following the crowd. After that, Disney acquired Pixar and head John Lasseter came on board at Disney Animation. He worked hard in retooling "Robinsons," which felt a bit more grounded and structural. Now we have "Bolt," which plays out a solid, heartfelt story almost in the fashion of a Pixar film (which I guess makes sense). Speaking of, Disney's CG designs are starting to get more and more Pixar-esque, with the humans looking like they could very well fit in a film like "The Incredibles." Most of the film features technically proficient, but basic, serviceable visuals. In terms of a filmatic story though, "Bolt" is pretty sound, with an ever-prevalent emotional core between Bolt and Penny amidst the traditional adventure home story... but with animals, of course. Almost like an animated "Homeward Bound."
The worst thing I can say about "Bolt" is that it feels very ordinary once you get passed the thrilling TV show segments. The exploits of this poorly deluded dog out in the real world doesn't grab me as greatly as it should. It kind of reminds me of Buzz in "Toy Story," except notice how the filmmakers knew it perhaps wasn't wise to leave him as the primary focus. Now while the film's heart and structured story begs to emulate Pixar, though with everything else it still seems to be going after the works of competing studies, with its overuse of dialogue and quirky characters. Quite a few of the jokes do hit their marks, be it the New York pigeons or some of Rhino's manic delusions, but a lot of the snappy, overwritten dialogue between Bolt and Mittens kind of just lies there. I also feel a whole lot more could have been done with the TV show backdrop, playing off the entertainment industry, but apart from an admittedly amusing heartless Hollywood agent, most of the beginning portion is played fairly straight.
Yeah, so "Bolt" does feel very basic and doesn't necessarily reach for great heights in terms of originality or innovation. But that doesn't make it bad. The familiar story beats and humor still work, and many came off fresh enough to keep me entertaining. A few exciting scene like breaking Mittens out of the animal shelter peppered throughout didn't hurt my interest either. The film's emotional undercurrent also helped support most of the film's weight, especially for me: the movie could have been garbage and I still would have teared up seeing that dog reunited with his owner. That being said, they could have relied on audiences' automatic reaction to such schmaltz, but instead developed Bolt and Penny enough to make us actually give a shit whether these two specific characters finally make it in the end.
Verdict? As I said, "Bolt" really feels like a movie on autopilot, and it's one we'll probably forget about in a few year's time, but on all accounts it's an enjoyable film with just enough story, heart and humor to keep one going for ninety minutes time. It's no triumph, but it ain't bad. It's a lukewarm 'pretty good.'

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