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Dustin Putman

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Bolt  (2008)
2 Stars
Directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams.
Voice Cast: John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, Mark Walton, Malcolm McDowell, James Lipton, Greg Germann, Diedrich Bader, Nick Swardson, J.P. Manoux, Dan Fogelman, Kari Wahlgren, Chloe Grace Moretz.
2008 – 96 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for some mild peril).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 16, 2008.
The non-Pixar Walt Disney computer-animated films of recent years have, for the most part, not been able to live up to the timeless likes of 1999's "Toy Story 2," 2003's "Finding Nemo," or 2006's "Cars." There is a sort of magic in the creative imprint that Pixar stamps on their movies that somehow transcends typical kiddie movie fare. True to form, "Bolt" is not working on that high level, but there are moments where the viewer can sense that it is within arm's reach of getting to it. This is a warm and even perceptive family film, not always original—the story blends 1993's "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey" with 2007's "Firehouse Dog"—but undeniably sweet-natured.

Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is an American White Shepherd with super powers who has dedicated his life to protecting his "person," young Penny (Miley Cyrus), from the forces of evil. There's just one catch: Bolt doesn't really have special powers, and he has no idea that he is the star of his own action television series, the cameras and boom mics always just out of his line of vision. Penny really loves Bolt, but she is also just an actress who has agreed to help keep the charade going, lest Bolt ever find out the crushing truth. In an attempt to add extra drama to the show, Penny is kidnapped by nefarious, cat-friendly archenemy Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell) at the end of an episode, leading Bolt to believe that she is still in terrible danger. Escaping from his trailer, Bolt ends up closed in a box and shipped to New York City. In new surroundings, Bolt leashes himself to a fussy alley cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) and demands that she take him to where Penny is being held against her will. Mittens naturally has no idea what this pooch is talking about, but has no choice but to play along. The two of them—and, later, with overexcited hamster-in-a-bubble Rhino (Mark Walter) tagging along—set out on a cross-country adventure, en route to Hollywood.

Lusciously animated with great care to detail and design, "Bolt" works both as a travelogue and as a story of friendship between a canine who has never known what it is like to be a regular dog and a homeless cat who has begun to forget what it is like to have someone who unconditionally loves you. Bolt's learning process involving the joys of dogdom—in one happy scene, he sticks his head out of a moving vehicle for the first time and lets his tongue blow in the open breeze—as well as his gradual discovery that all he has ever known has been part of a fictional show, are at the heart of a film that may be a bit complicated at the onset for the youngest audience members to understand. Nevertheless, they will be bewitched by the antics of Bolt, Mittens, and especially Rhino, and will actively want to see how Bolt finally reunites with Penny.

Sequences depicting the open vistas and landmarks of America are gorgeously rendered—shots of a nighttime Las Vegas are marvelous to behold—helping to enhance what is, in essence, a fairly routine road movie. One montage, set to Jenny Lewis' song "Barking at the Moon," is a highlight that deepens the emotional connection between Bolt and Mittens, turning the picture into a little more than just a throwaway lark. The recent forgettable "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" could have learned a thing or two from "Bolt" directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams.

The thought of John Travolta (2007's "Hairspray") voicing protagonist Bolt seems like a bit of a stretch, but it works, helping to make him all the more plucky and lovable. As Penny, Miley Cyrus (TV's "Hannah Montana") is amiable, emulating a sense of regret over deceiving Bolt all his life. Susie Essman (2005's "The Man") is a scene-stealer as Mittens, a cat who acts like she knows it all, but is really just insecure and in need of a friend. Finally, Mark Walton (2005's "Chicken Little") plays hamster Rhino as if he's forever hyped up on sugar and, likewise, more lonely than he lets on.

An intense, perilous climax set in a burning warehouse could have been done without, but "Bolt" returns to its roots for a lovely final scene that shows with simplicity and care what it means to be domesticated animals in the arms of people who care about them and whom they care about in return. This, more so than the showy action scenes early on or the intermittent slapstick fodder, is the heart of what "Bolt" is all about, and the reason why the film collectively works as well as it does.

Special Note: In theaters, "Bolt" is showing in regular 2-D projection, as well as in Real-D 3-D. While technology now allows for a superior 3-D experience than what the chintzy red-and-green-lensed cardboard glasses used to offer, it lacks any sort of "wow" factor here. Seeing "Bolt" in 3-D adds a little visual depth to the proceedings, but is generally unnecessary and doesn't really call attention to itself. This is one case where seeing it in two dimensions on the big screen won't make any difference, and is perfectly acceptable.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman