Screenwriters: Dan Fogelman, Chris Williams
Starring: John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, Mark Walton
Running Time: 103 mins
There is a gold standard for CG animated movies that's been set by the imperious Pixar. WALL-E is to a three-star Michelin restaurant what Space Chimps is to Wimpy, and even stronger fare such as Shrek comes across like Pizza Hut when measured next to the studio that birthed Toy Story, The Incredibles et al. One of the three films nominated for this year's best animated Oscar, Bolt is sandwiched between other award hopefuls WALL-E and Kung Fu Panda in terms of quality.
Bolt starts with a bang as a superpowered dog (Travolta) and his owner Penny (Cyrus) are on the run from the evil Dr. Calico's (Malcolm McDowell) goons in a kinetic action sequence. It quickly transpires that the hound is the star of his own primetime TV show and under the impression that his powers are real. Sharing a close bond with Penny, his world is thrown into crisis when the show's director (James Lipton) forces the pair apart to keep Bolt 'method' for an upcoming kidnap plotline. A defiant Bolt breaks free and embarks on a cross-country journey to reunite with his owner.
Bolt functions as an involving, funny and visually vibrant adventure, but the real surprise is that it crosses three genres and successfully manages to connect with all of them. A superpowered canine opens up potential for an action movie, and the setpieces, in particular the opener, are about as thrilling and coherently staged (no choppy editing here) as any top tier blockbuster - Michael Bay can only dream of such clarity! Bolt's search for Penny, with the aid of wise-cracking cat Mittens (Essman) and chubby hamster Rhino (Walton), takes the form of a sweeping American road movie. Learning vital life lessons after the delusion of superpowers drops, Bolt begins to value dog's place in the world. Furthermore, the appearance of a power-crazed director, motor-mouthed agent and cliffhanger-ending-obsessed TV exec provides nifty Hollywood satire.
With its voice cast, Bolt has secured big stars who fit their roles. So often a marquee name is plugged into an animated feature for the sake of the box office (see Shark Tale). Here, Travolta's youthful intonations are perfect for the pooch's boundless energy and the husky Cyrus gives Penny maturity. Essman, known for turning the air blue on Curb Your Enthusiasm, is a perfect match for Mittens, the cynical, acerbic old cat that warms to Bolt.
The movie's strength may owe something to executive producer John Lasseter. For years he oversaw Pixar's output and is now doing so for the House of Mouse too. Sharing in Walt Disney's maxim that "for every laugh, there should be a tear", his stamp is all over this movie. You wonder if its pointed digs at clueless executives are aimed at Disney bosses who diluted the brand with direct-to-DVD quickies like The Lion King 1½. Bolt, however, has been made with care and a loving touch. It's a neat progression for Disney that finds balance between the studio's old-school charm and Pixar's dynamic modern outlook. In many ways the film is a distant cousin to The Truman Show - both feature protagonists who realise that they're living a manufactured existence and the overriding message, that renouncing fame and artifice can provide happiness, is a valuable one for younger viewers.
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