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Movie Tuesday: Bolt (PG)

Best in Show
A TV superpooch breaks the fourth wall
by Jared Peterson

The animated adventure Bolt takes the classic animal road trip and infuses it with a touch of Truman Show self-discovery. In his hit TV series, Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is a genetically enhanced superdog with laser eyes, enormous strength and speed, and an earth-shattering bark. He loyally protects his teenaged owner Penny (Miley Cyrus… and the crowd goes wild) and helps her thwart the maniacal schemes of cat-loving villains. In real life, well…Bolt doesn’t have a real life. To keep his performances realistic and the show’s ratings high, his Hollywood handlers go to great lengths to hide the on-set artifice and maintain his imposed delusions of grandeur. Even the actress that plays Penny, though she genuinely loves and cares for him, is kept from breaking the spell. Thusly duped, he remains immersed in intrigue and on constant alert, never knowing the simple, ball-chasing, butt-sniffing pleasures of being a normal dog. So when he is accidentally packed and shipped all the way to New York City, Bolt’s familiar adventure—finding and saving his beloved owner—takes on a new metaphysical twist, as he slowly learns his place in the real world and discovers where his true powers lie.

On the way, Bolt faces many threats—some real, some merely perceived. He finds a foil in Mittens (Susie Essman), a streetwise alley cat he thinks is in cahoots with the bad guys. Dragged along as an enemy hostage, Mittens has plenty of fun at his expense. But her attitude slowly migrates from disbelief and derision to begrudging sympathy, and she ends up trying to ease Bolt’s transition to normalcy. She even goes so far as to teach him some quintessential skills he’d never been exposed to, including the fine art of begging and the sublime pleasures of a whipping wind outside an open car window.

Bolt shoots for the same mix of cute and clever that informs most animated movies today. Directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams employ detailed cartoon realism to moderately impressive effect, and Williams and Dan Fogelman saturate the screenplay with amusing caricatures and sly, sarcastic exchanges. The timing sometimes feels a little off, though, as if they were leaving space for rolling laughter that is far from guaranteed. The wisest cracks come at the expense of the Hollywood phonies and philistines that hover around the set—Penny’s agent, spewing nauseating business-speak and self-serving spin, is particularly slimy. But the lion’s share of comic gems issue from an earnestly deluded hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton). This tiny couch potato wholeheartedly buys into Bolt’s TV persona and giddily agrees to tag along as his hyperactive sidekick. Bolt and Rhino are, in fact, two sides of the same coin: while one sloughs off fantasy and embraces his ordinariness, the other harnesses the power of imagination to propel himself (inside a surprisingly multi-functional plastic ball) toward real heroic glory.

There is no swearing in the movie, and no trace of sexuality. Rhino, in his adventurous ardor, makes a couple of casually vicious threats—they’re hilarious, though I’m not sure I’d want my pre-schooler adding a steely-voiced “I’ll snap his neck” to his playtime patter. The film’s lengthy opening sequence shows the TV versions of Bolt and Penny going head-to-head with legions of black-clad soldiers wielding guns and grenades; when enemy vehicles crash and explode the bad guys are not courteously thrown clear—they clearly go down with their ships. Two scenes—one on and around a speeding train, another in a burning building—put the real girl and dog in real peril, and the experience might be overwhelming for some younger viewers.

At a November 23rd screening, the following films were previewed: The Tale of Despereaux (not yet rated), the adventures of a heroic mouse; Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (not yet rated), the further adventures of prehistoric animals; Inkheart (PG), about stories that come to life; Bedtime Stories (PG), also about stories that come to life; and Delgo (PG), depicting a war between races of slightly odd-looking aliens.

Jared Peterson’s bark is worse than his bite—see for yourself at http://proweirdo.blogspot.com.

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