STUDIO: Disney
MSRP: $39.98
RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes
• Animated Rhino short
• Behind-the-scenes voice acting
• Music video
• Filmmakers’ profile
• Deleted scenes
• Art direction featurette
• Remote game
• Art gallery

The Pitch

“It’s Homeward Bound meets The Truman Show!”

The Humans

Miley Cyrus, John Travolta, Susie Essman, Mark Walton, Mark McDowell.

The Nutshell

Bolt the doggie (Travolta) has been raised to believe that the role he plays on a weekly action show, that of Bolt the Superdoggie, is his real life, that every week he actually does save the life of his human, Penny (Cyrus), from certain danger. So when he accidentally gets shipped across the country, separated from the staged life he knows, he must confront his true self while sustaining that which he knows is not a lie: his love for Penny.

I am back in the chamber. I can taste Penny’s tears on my tongue.

The Lowdown

I like both Finding Nemo and The Incredibles quite a bit. They work for me because of their core relationships: father and son in Nemo and the family web in The Incredibles. All sorts of supporting factors tip the scales, but the main draw — and the thing I look for, unconsciously or not, in every children’s story — comes from the relationships. I’m not sure how to approach Bolt, as a result, because it’s mainly the story of a boy and his god.

I don’t see much compelling, there. Bolt gets separated from Penny, tries his darndest to get back to him. Why? Because Penny gives him a kind word when the shooting day is done. Because Penny feeds him and pats his head. I’m being deliberately cynical, but it’s because I’m having to manufacture any sort of depth for the relationship between Bolt and Penny. He worships her, adores her, and will not hear any arguments that might dissuade him from doing so. Bolt is a zealot.

This is what zealots do.

Road movies have innate problems developing relationships if they stick to their structure. When Character A travels cross-country to return to Character B, or Place A, or Thing A, most of the running time is focused on Character A, leaving the object that gives him motivation without a lot of room to be developed. The production team on Bolt don’t deliver any solutions to these problems. Though there are some plain similarities between Bolt and Finding Nemo, there is a world of difference between how the characters on either end of the quest are developed. Here, Bolt gets all of it.

He does get some help along the way in the form of Mittens the Cat with a Terrible Secret (Essman) and Rhino the Hamster (Mark Walton). The trio share the adventures, but as far as character development goes Rhino is a pure, flat (funny) sidekick, and Mittens mopes around and generally behaves like the Rita character in Animaniacs. (Look for other Animaniacs callbacks; I spotted at least one other.) Mittens foils Bolt’s zealotry with an equal but opposing belief in the unworthiness of humans, but it comes off hollow since she has more evidence for her claims, yet is entirely dismissed.

Apparently, I’m arguing that a cartoon cat should have been a stronger, more militant atheist.

What does “conjoined” mean?

To ground things a bit, I don’t think there is an overt religious message in Bolt, nor I do I think the considerations of faith are meant to dig any deeper than the surface of the thing. What I will happily complain about is the weakness of the dramatic aim, since it relies too heavily on fulfilling that shallow, unconsidered faith.  Families in movies like this want to get back together because each member exerts a strong pull on each other member, and tearing them apart is like trying to split an atom without enough energy. But here Bolt gets cast away, split off from his Penny. She misses him, but she is distant, remote, a nucleus not trying too damn hard to regain its electrons.

In the interest of preserving the lives of innocent metaphors everywhere, I should probably comment a bit on the concrete components of Bolt. For one, the action direction is top-notch. Two sequences particularly stand out: the opening segment, drawn from Bolt and Penny’s TV show, and a later escape from an animal shelter/murderhouse. The latter, particularly, plays to the strengths of each involved character, and both are set at an ideal pace. The voice work and interplay between the actors — especially between Essman and Travolta — hits a nice rhythm, and the dialog is sharp, even if the story it’s in service to doesn’t keep the point.

Can you spot Hitchcock’s cameo?

Finally, I’ve got to suspect I might be taking a little bit of unrelated anger out on Bolt. I’m, by turns, ticked off and enthralled by how production companies approach children’s movies, books, whatever. Call it my personal crusade: Children’s entertainment can have depth, humor, insight, and accessibility without making sacrifices. I take that back: sacrifices do have to be made, but they have to come from the writers and filmmakers spending time to create a workable, internally energetic relationship between the protagonists. Without that, you get something children will enjoy, cherish, remember, and quote endlessly, while pestering their parents to purchase tie-in products.

Oh, wait! I get it!

I still don’t buy Miley Cyrus as a benevolent deity.

The Package

Disney can always be relied on to pack a disc (or 3-disc set, in this case) to its gills. First off, you get 1 disc for the Blu-Ray, 1 for the regular DVD, and 1 for the digital copies which can be played back in Quicktime or Windows Media Player.

On the Blu-Ray, you also have:

A new short film featuring Rhino. Everybody loves Rhino, for in him we see all our hopes, our dreams, our boundless imaginations. It’s called “Super Rhino” and lets him break out into the stardom we knew he was meant for.

Armor yourself with the Bucket of the Spirit, the Plastic Rolly Ball of Truth.

There are two behind-the-scenes segments detailing the voice actors, one focused on John Travolta and Miley Cyrus (who don’t need to interact) and one more general. These will be interesting to anyone who doesn’t know what voice actors do. For a smaller subset of those people, it will make them think that voice acting is the coolest, most laid-back, and easiest job in the world, for which all you have to do is speak in funny voices.

There’s a music video featuring a duet between Miley Cyrus and John Travolta, because you can’t get a Disney movie these days without it including a music video, and you may as well throw John Travolta in there. He might have appreciated a lower register, though.

The filmmakers are profiled in a little featurette, focusing mainly on the collaboration between directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard. The behind-the-camera talent gets a bit more in the “Creating the World” featurette, which shows a bit about the art design and direction.

You also get a few deleted scenes, with and without director commentary, an art gallery, and a cheesy little game you play with your remote. A point in its favor, though: it is called “Bolt’s Be-Awesome Mission Game.” I like it. Simple. Direct.

The other two discs just have the film and the digital copies of the film.

6 out of 10