Disney's CGI feature Bolt contains little plot material we haven't seen somewhere before but remains a definite winner for all that. Disney TV fans are, of course, more than familiar with the idea of a supposedly "heroic" canine whose stardom has been manufactured by Hollywood; the Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers episode "Flash the Wonder Dog" and the 101 Dalmatians: The Series ep "Watch for Falling Idols" both gave the concept a thorough going-over. In those cases, however, the focus was on the loss of another character's (Dale's or Lucky's) faith in a supposed hero that turns out to have "paws of clay." Bolt's spin on the theme – that Bolt (John Travolta) has been conditioned to believe that his superpowers are real and that his mistress, Penny, really is in mortal danger – allows for a level of character development and self-discovery that Flash and Thunderbolt never had a chance to experience. (No doubt, this added layer of complexity owes something to the fact that Pixar's John Lasseter served in a supervisory capacity.) The manner in which Bolt is thrown upon his own resources is exceptionally contrived, and the unlikely allies that he meets – Mittens, a streetwise New York cat whose attitude towards Bolt is a fascinating mixture of fear, pity, contempt, and genuine concern, and Rhino, a nutty hamster who's a huge fan of Bolt the TV star – smack a little too much of formulaic casting (not to mention The Incredible Journey), but the cross-country trek that forms the narrative spine of the movie is executed with flair and great humor, with every character being given multiple moments to shine. Rhino's delusion-nourished one-liners are almost enough to carry the movie themselves… almost. I wish that the movie had dwelt a little longer on Bolt's gradual realization that he's "only canine," and the near-breakup of the traveling team is painfully predictable, but the denouement is impossible for even the worst cynic to resist. Certainly, the movie kept the audience with which I saw it emotionally involved to the very end.
I do confess to being a little baffled by the movie's conflicted view of the "flyover country" that Bolt, Mittens, and Rhino must slog and/or ride through (Bolt, after all, can't fly!) in order to return to Hollywood and "save Penny from the green-eyed man." The contrast between Hollywood phoniness (the technological and psychological manipulations that infest Bolt's TV series; the annoying agent who constantly tries to get the grieving Penny to forget her missing pal and literally "stay with the program") and the genuine connection between Penny and Bolt is crystal-clear, and the wholesome Middle America setting of the movie's final scene suggests that said setting is the perfect spot for such "authentic" emotion and, therefore, is morally superior to that of Tinseltown. Why, then, are all the human characters in this portion of the movie portrayed as being ugly, fat, oblivious, or a combination of all three? Were the writers conflicted – wanting to "only connect" with red-state America while, at the same time, proving incapable of purging those carefully nurtured mental stereotypes from their characterizations of the Middle American cast members? Or might this have been a case of Wall-E hangover? (At least these "plain folks" are capable of autonomous movement as they waddle to their RV parks and "Waffle World" restaurants.)
Apart from the debt that Bolt's plot may owe to those aforementioned humble TV episodes, I noticed a few other fairly suspicious "might-be" borrowings. Three trios of humorous pigeons – with each group emoting in a manner befitting its setting -- pop up in NYC, L.A., and the "down-home" setting of the final scene, but the fact that the NYC pigeons appear first and do GoodFellas shtick suggests that the writers may have had Animaniacs' "GoodFeathers" somewhere in the backs of their minds. Likewise, Mittens may not sing, but her general attitude (not to mention her underlying desire for a home) reminded me of Rita (though Bolt "def'n'tely" has little in common with Runt the sheepdog!). The claim made by some reviewers that Inspector Gadget's Penny and Brain inspired the characters of Penny and Bolt may also have some basis in fact, but the fact that Animaniacs is a little more contemporary may make my case just a bit stronger.
Bolt was accompanied by a "Cars-Toon" in which Mater is pitted against an arrogant Japanese car (voiced by Robert Ito, who the bloody heck else?) in a race to the top of the Tokyo Tower (which couldn't possibly have been built by the inhabitants of a world of cars without any hands, or… but those who know me already know my fundamental beef about Cars). I assume that the "globe-trotting" aspect of this action-filled short ("filled"? More like stuffed and oozing out of the side, like the jelly in a jelly donut) is meant to be a foreshadowing of Cars 2. If so, then I think Pixar may have some problems piecing together a coherent plot that lives up to its usual high standards in the areas of character development and audience involvement. Toy Story 2 managed to do it by introducing some winning new characters, and I suspect that Cars 2 may have to do the same thing, or it might end up resembling the live-action Speed Racer all too closely.