a critiQal film review Bolt (2008)

Plot: When a TV dog star (Travolta) is accidentally shipped from his Hollywood soundstage to New York City, he begins the cross-country journey back with two traveling companions - an abandoned housecat (Essman) and a TV-obsessed hamster (Walton) in a plastic ball - and the delusion his superpowers are real.

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Amid rumors of a interesting plot involving a radioactive hamster and a super-powered dog lost amongst a Mad Max (1980)-type wilderness, Disney’s latest animated film, Bolt made it’s way onto my radar.

Alas, these rumors proved false, and the plot line was actually revealed to be about a super-powered TV dog star who is thrust into the real world without knowing he’s just an average dog. Then came the news that none other than Disney’s latest pop star, Miley Cyrus, would be voicing one of the characters, and I knew I was going to let this one pass until it hit DVD.

Now that it’s arrived on DVD, however, I figured I’d give it a shot. Would Bolt be just an animated Homeward Bound, or would Disney be able to come through once again?

John Travolta lends his voice to main dog Bolt, and it’s a bit of a mistake on Disney’s part. While his voice is expressive enough, the viewer is too familiar with the face behind the voice to really associate him completely with this dog. Instead, it’s more like a voice-over import – the voice just never quite matches what the viewer feels the dog should sound like.

Thankfully, the rest of the voice cast isn’t as immediately recognizable, including Miley Cyrus and Malcolm McDowell as Penny and Dr. Calico, respectively. This lets their characters really take over in the mind of the viewer, and there sequences are the better for it.

As usual, Bolt is saved in part by the highly comical Disney sidekick (shouldn’t that be a trademarked term by now?). In this case, that comical sidekick is Rhino, a hamster in a ball, and boy does he deliver. Spewing out line after line of hilarity, Rhino very nearly steals the show right from his intro, and some of the best sequences involve him and not Bolt (although Bolt does try to win over viewers prior to Rhino’s entrance with a very funny attempt at “the dog face”).

At the start, the viewer is introduced to the type of show Bolt stars in with Penny – sort of an Inspector Gadget-inspired piece, minus the bumbling. While the show looks interesting – and will probably turn up on the Disney channel as an actual show eventually, it’s only the setup for this film, and Bolt soon escapes into the real world, determined to rescue Penny after she is captured in a cliffhanger episode.

While his trials and tribulations at discovering he actually doesn’t have superpowers are appealing, the introduction of a very sane cat named Mittens (voiced by Susie Essman) and the afore-mentioned Rhino the hamster (voiced by Mark Walton) really help make the film much more fun to watch. As the trio proceeds cross-country on their trip to bring Bolt back to Hollywood, Disney really steps up the laughs. Without the TV-obsessed Rhino, however, this trip would get rather old quickly, and viewers will be thankful the nutty hamster is along for the ride.

Apparently, part of Miley Cyrus’ agreement deal to voice a character in the film seems to have been to add some country songs to the soundtrack, and so viewers are subjected to some twangy country along the way – something that doesn’t really seem to jibe with the feel of the film. Instead, viewers can almost immediately recognize these songs as what they are – a kowtow by Disney to Miley, rather than anything that actually contributes to the film.

While Travolta’s familiar face threatens to overwhelm the animated Bolt, and the rocky country vibe that doesn’t really seem to fit in the film, Bolt is a still a success in my book for Disney – mostly thanks to Rhino. Without his hilarious antics, the film would be nowhere near as entertaining as it is, and may have even collapsed under it’s own moral weight. Instead, the viewer will find themselves laughing out loud frequently through the film, and should thoroughly enjoy this trip cross-country.

True, Bolt isn’t perfect, and the “Super Rhino” animated short included on the DVD just further serves to highlight how much better it could have been if Rhino were the main star, but it’s definitely worth checking out, and should work out as another win for Disney animation.

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