Thursday, December 18, 2008

Review: Bolt (****)

Directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams
Cast: John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, Mark Walton, Malcolm McDowell, James Lipton, Greg Germann, Diedrich Bader, Nick Swardson, J.P. Manoux, Dan Fogelman, Kari Wahlgren, Chloe Moretz, Randy Savage, Ronn Moss.
2008--96 minutes

Rated PG (violence)

Reviewed by The Teen Critic on December 19, 2008.

(Note: This review contains potential spoilers. Read with care. You might want to see the movie before reading it.)

There's a moment in "Bolt" when I just about choked up. You might miss it if you take the sequence out of context. It comes near the middle of the film, when Bolt has found out the truth about himself: that he isn't any real hero and instead is just the star of a television show depicting as such. He wants to learn what a real dog is like, so his feline friend Mittens tells him to stick his head out the window, just like other dogs. "Stick your tongue out," Mittens suggests. He does. And loves it. It's a little scene, maybe forty-five seconds out of 96 minutes. But it stuck with me and I wasn't able to forget it. I kept thinking back to that sequence after viewing it, thinking about how powerfully it hit me and wondering why. Then I remembered: I had similar experiences in the other two animated films that I adored this year, "WALL-E" and "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" Those films also received four stars from me, because they elevated themselves within the animated genre (this also happened with "Ratatouille" and "Meet the Robinsons" last year, "Happy Feet" and "Monster House" in get the picture).

I think the sequence I described speaks directly to the themes of the film: finding one's true identity, and never forsaking a friendship. They are "stock themes," if you will, right out of the handbook, but they are made fresh and exciting by a near-perfect screenplay and brilliant handling by the filmmakers and the writers. "Bolt" is four things: side-splittingly hilarious, surprisingly tender, visually beautiful, and wondrously exciting. So were "WALL-E" and "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!," the former nonetheless at a higher level. All three are magical experiences just the same.

The plot is actually kind of ingenious. Bolt is a superdog, both on and off TV. On the tube, he plays a dog with super powers to defeat evil. Off the tube, he's a renowned superstar, forming on billboards and, I'm assuming, lunchboxes. The catch is, he knows only about his TV persona and nothing about the real world; to him, the show is real world, and there isn't anything else. Because of a plot development on his show (his person Penny's character gets kidnapped, so naturally he wants to save her, thinking Penny herself has been kidnapped), Bolt goes after her and in the process ends up in the real world--Hollywood, to be exact. He teams up with queenie cat Mittens and rabid fan Rhino the Hamster to find Penny. Soon, however, Bolt must learn the truth about himself and...

That's where I'll stop. I don't want to ruin anything for you before you see the movie. The plot is ingenious, yes, but it takes turns you won't expect and the ending is actually not that predictable (to a level, it is, but there are elements about it you won't foresee). Nearly all the usual stuff is here: sidekicks abandon hero, they get back together and reconcile, arrive just in time to save heroine, etc. But it's delivered with originality, verve, and charm.

These animals are almost human in nature--they make rational decisions which have consequences in the near future--but then, aren't all animated creatures humane? Yes, but these have extra layers. When Mittens breaks near the climax, explaining the true nature of humans to Bolt, there is a certain sadness and, dare I say, weariness behind her eyes. She's experienced it; she can testify. When Rhino the Hamster explains the true meaning of friendship to Mittens later, as he has learned from Bolt's TV show, it isn't just another sermon. He's learned so much from the show, is so excited to impart it, that his endearing hyperactivity gives way to a wisdom rarely seen in movies of this ilk. And as for Bolt, his emotions are all given by facial expressions--understandable since he is an actor--and there is a moment when he sees the horrifying reality of recasting a role on a TV show; the scene is deeply ironic and heartbreakingly sad at the same time.

The technical attributes are alarmingly good. The fast-paced editing, as well as the disorientingly good animation, make for a visual style reminiscent of and just as good as anything by Pixar (yes, I just said that). It may not be on the level of "WALL-E" (that required more intricacies), but surprisingly, it comes rather close, though on a different level. The voice work is, simply put, amazing. I am coming rather close, with this film, of forgiving Miley Cyrus of her alter ego, Hannah Montana; maybe her picking a smarter movie than the upcoming "Hannah Montana: The Movie" will do that for me. For the time being, she easily does her strongest work as Penny, a true individual when the situation needs it. John Travolta and Susie Essman have great chemistry together--Bolt is as strong an individual as Penny, and Mittens's true colors are only shown in that aforementioned sequences. But perhaps the best work in the film is by relative nobody Matt Walton as Rhino the Hamster, ranking as the best animated comedic character since Dory in the Pixar classic "Finding Nemo;" like Dory, Rhino the Hamster isn't all laugh and no heart, and he shows a real soul in his humor. All of these are actually great performances, by any standards, both live-action and animated.

I'm not sure why I was so touched by "Bolt." Perhaps the same reason I was so touched by "Penelope" earlier this year: it's a rather conventional story arc, told with originality and not without its unexpected developments. It ranks as the biggest surprise of the year, and yes, I would call it an animated masterpiece and a new classic of the genre. On a special note, this is the best 3-D experience I've ever had; I've never liked the process, but here it works beautifully, as the colors pop and are tailor-made for 3-D. I cannot think of a place this movie steps wrong. It's one of this year's very best.

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