Saturday, September 27, 2014

OVP: Bolt (2008)

Film: Bolt (2008)
Stars: John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, Mark Walton, Malcolm McDowell, Greg Germann
Directors: Chris Williams and Byron Howard
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Animated Feature Film)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 1/5 stars

As an adult, when you watch a children's film you occasionally have to suspend belief.  A movie like Up, for example, pushes the laws of physics to the end of the world and beyond.  Toy Story is a silly fare if you really think about it (why is it only the toys that come alive?).  But usually the world that is being established at least makes sense on-paper.  You can suspend your beliefs because it kind of works-there's enough reality grounded into the movie to make sense of everything on-screen.  And then there's something like Bolt which takes that patience and pushes it to infinity and well, well beyond.

(Spoilers) The movie, a big hit for Disney in 2008 and one that apparently "re-captured Disney's magic" according to some viewers (I think that was said a year too early-Princess and the Frog was much better in that regard), is an extremely silly fare that seems to borrow more from DreamWorks than Pixar (which is about as mean of a thing as you can say about an animated film).  The movie follows Bolt (Travolta), a dog who isn't aware that he isn't a super dog (he plays one on television), who is separated from his master Penny (Cyrus), and then enlists the help of a streetwise cat named Mittens (Essman) and a frantic hampster named Rhino (Walton).  Along the way, Bolt realizes that he is not super, but can still be loved by Penny and save the day anyway.  It's a cute, if 100% predictable plot, and fine enough in that regard.

I had a few problems with it, however.  For starters, the animation is pretty rudimentary by today's standards.  We don't get any of the stylistic color schemes we have from later Disney films like Princess and the Frog or Frozen, much less the heights of the Pixar universe.  It's computer-animated, but there's not enough life in this to really elevate it in a way that even some of the lower-grade Pixar films tend to enjoy.

The bigger problem isn't that, though: it's the plot, the characters, and the message the film sends to its viewers.  The plot is, well, stupid.  Even the most simplistic of children would realize that Bolt clearly has eaten before, and yet there is a scene where he is stunned that he is hungry.  It would have made more sense for him to be stunned food wasn't randomly in front of him.  It's these sorts of moments that take you truly out of the picture, and show the writing team wasn't paying enough attention.  The film clearly is borrowing from Peter Weir's The Truman Show, but once we're out in the real world, we don't get a legitimate reason for Bolt to believe that his superpowers were inhibited.  The dog may go through some identity crises like in Toy Story or see some things where his delusion can be extended, but the film doesn't feature any such plot devices.  Instead, it becomes an extended dose of silly, and I expect more from a studio that gave us complicated plots for younger audiences in the 1990's.

The characters themselves are all pretty snooze-ville as well.  Bolt is one of the blandest antagonists I've seen Disney base an entire movie around-he's uncomplicated, not particularly interesting, and constantly just running around being bossy.  Travolta's vocal work is pretty uninspired as well-it sounds as if he's reading a children's story rather than actually acting.  The only person who is remotely funny in their role is Essman.  Even though her character is horribly cliched, she has the comic skills to land most of the jokes and actually make you laugh.  The film needed a bit more of her bite, but sadly even she joins the conformity by the film's end.

And that was my big, really sad takeaway toward the end of the film.  This wasn't just a "we're happy just the way we are" message.  Instead, we get Penny giving up her own dreams of being an actress and just deciding to live in the country growing up to be a kid.  I know that there's a wholesome nature to this, but I'm going to say I was a little disturbed that instead of having her pursue her other dream, she had to stay at home to make her man (in this case, a dog) happy.  This may be taking a bit of a feminist reading of the film, but that's where my mind went, particularly considering that Cyrus was the one cast as the voice of Penny, and the character onscreen in many ways mirrored Cyrus in real life (both were on silly hit TV shows where characters have double lives), but Cyrus in real-life went on to have number one hit singles and became a multi-millionaire, not a girl running around playing fetch.  I'm going to say that I was disappointed that we saw another girl come in and play Penny's character rather than have the show itself continue on in a slightly altered way with Cyrus's Penny continuing to follow her career.

Those were my thoughts on this film.  We'll get back to it in a month or so when we tackle the 2008 OVP, but let's kick off our discussion of that race now.  Did you enjoy Bolt?  Do you agree with me that it sends some pretty mixed messages to the audience?  And where does it rank on your personal Oscar ballot against WALL-E and Kung Fu Panda?  Share in the comments!

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