Disney's Eager-to-Please 'Bolt' Lives Up to Its Studio Pedigree

By Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 21, 2008

For years now, the Walt Disney animation studio has been living a nightmare version of one of its own classic stories. The ugly stepsister to Pixar's Cinderella, Disney Animation -- the studio behind Cinderella, as well as Snow White, Bambi and Dumbo -- has watched as younger, prettier Pixar stepped into the glass slipper again and again. "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo," "Ratatouille," "WALL E" -- Pixar's movies represent a run of technical, artistic and commercial achievement unheard of in Hollywood. Meanwhile, corporate sibling Disney Animation has been releasing such forgettable fare as "Brother Bear."

So it's no surprise that "Bolt," the first movie developed and made under the reign of Disney Animation's new chief -- Pixar mastermind John Lasseter -- pilfers aspects of the Pixar formula. That it falls short of Pixar's lofty heights doesn't mean the attempt isn't worthwhile; indeed, "Bolt" is the most entertaining and well-crafted Disney Animation movie in years. But it ain't Pixar.

As sprightly and determined as its lead character, "Bolt" works hard to be all things to all people, with mixed results. The story of a TV-star pooch (voiced by John Travolta) who's accidentally mailed from Los Angeles to New York, "Bolt" follows our hero (plus a cat and a daft hamster) on his return trip across America in search of his owner and co-star, Penny (Miley Cyrus). But because Bolt, sheltered by his producers from the outside world, believes he truly is the superdog he plays on the tube -- complete with super-bark and heat rays shot from his eyes -- Bolt's simple dog-meets-girl, girl-loses-dog, dog-seeks-girl story jockeys for attention with some fairly sophisticated Hollywood satire, complete with a smooth-talking agent and splashy action scenes.

The result is a family film with an identity crisis: "The Incredible Journey" meets "Entourage" meets "The Truman Show." The movie's lovingly animated exploding helicopters -- shown, with Michael Bay elan, blowing up from three angles -- might terrify the younger children most likely to melt at the scenes of Penny hugging her warm puppy. Meanwhile, tweens -- well-versed, thanks in part to Cyrus's own "Hannah Montana," in the ins and outs of stardom -- may bristle at the movie's anti-celebrity theme, as Penny learns that there's something more important than her career as a child actress in a Hollywood where adults have only the bottom line in mind.

At Pixar, this kind of tonal blend comes about organically; think of the seamless mix of child-friendly comedy and anti-corporate satire in "Monsters, Inc.," or the way "Finding Nemo" so elegantly combined real-life parenting concerns with high-spirited adventure. But "Bolt" awkwardly toggles from TV-biz in-jokes to sentimental road trip, with the two stories colliding haphazardly at the movie's conclusion.

That's not to say that everything "Bolt" borrows from Pixar doesn't work. As in a Pixar movie, the supporting characters -- voiced not by Hollywood stars but by working actors and moonlighting animators -- steal the show. Bolt's partners in his long-distance journey are an alley cat named Mittens, voiced with sardonic charm by the comedian Susie Essman, and Rhino, a hyperventilating hamster played by longtime Disney development artist Mark Walton. Rhino, a crazed fanboy who's watched every episode of Bolt's TV show from inside his plastic hamster ball, is the kind of endearing sidekick whose antics surely have Disney executives already planning his first straight-to-DVD spinoff.

And, like the best Pixar movies, "Bolt" is often awe-inspiringly beautiful. Shown in 3-D in some theaters -- viewers will be given Buddy Holly-type glasses for the effect -- the film makes exceptional use of the technique, not just for kinetic action but for lovely tableaux of the American countryside through which Bolt and his friends travel. One gorgeous shot, of the jewellike taillights of an animal-control van, resembled a 21st-century Edward Hopper painting. It's the kind of unexpected detail that makes me hope that Disney Animation, unlike the ugly stepsisters in "Cinderella," might have a future yet.

Bolt (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild action and peril.

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