Every generation has its dog movie. The dog movie. That perfect dog movie which empties the streets of strays and sends stores scrambling to load up on chew toys. That singular dog movie which sends millions of America’s kids to beg for their very own pet. For your parents, it was Old Yeller that had them dragging their moms and dads to the dog pound for the perfect Fido. For you, maybe it was Fox and the Hound played over and over again on your family’s creaking VHS player. For our kids, it’s going to be Bolt.
Now that every pet hating parent on the planet has vowed to boycott this film, let me talk to those of you who don’t mind the occasional cold, wet nose. This is a movie for dog lovers, of which there are a great many. Disney’s movie taps into our desire to believe that the happy hound sleeping at the end of our beds is as brave, noble, loyal, and devoted as he seems. Like all of Disney’s greatest movies there’s a deep, emotional core to what’s happening here. Maybe this isn’t the most original launching point for a story, but the places it takes us are smart and engaging. More importantly, everything you’ve ever wanted in a dog is embodied in Bolt (voiced by John Travolta).
When we meet Bolt, he’s living in a fantasy world. He’s the star of a popular TV show in which he plays a canine with superpowers, unfortunately he has no idea that his superpowers aren’t real. The show’s producers are careful to keep reality from creeping onto the set, and so Bolt lives life believing he can melt metal with his heat vision and demolish entire armies with his mighty bark. Bolt’s television series is introduced with an fast-paced, high-octane chase sequence in which we see him defeat hordes of villains to protect Penny, his owner and the girl he loves. It’s one of the best action sequences ever animated, easily on par with some of the jaw-dropping stuff seen in The Incredibles, only with a superhero who wears hair instead of spandex.
The interesting thing about Bolt is that even though he believes he’s a superhero, in true dog fashion he has never let it go to his head. To Bolt, those superpowers are simply a means to an end, and that end is protecting Penny, the little girl towards whom he directs all of his considerable love and devotion. Penny, an actress who knows the score, returns his love as best she can when she’s not being pulled away from him by greedy talent agents and meddling producers.
Eventually those producers make a mistake and Bolt inadvertently escapes the confines of his carefully constructed fantasy world. Unaware that he doesn’t really have super powers, he crashes into a few walls before he starts to suspect the truth. He blames everything on the villain of his TV show and sets out to find the green-eyed man whom he’s certain, must be doing horrible things to his beloved Penny. Knowing that cats are in the employ of evil, he captures one named Mittens (voiced by Susie Essman) and with her guidance sets off across the country, his only thought to find and save Penny who, incidentally, doesn’t really need any saving.
Somewhere along the road back to Penny, we know Bolt must figure out the truth. Mittens is never fooled and attempts to tell Bolt what’s really been going on. Bolt thinks only of Penny, and continues to convince himself that he can save her by leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Together Bolt and Mittens encounter a hamster named Rhino, who is a regular viewer of Bolt’s television show, and tells him that he’s seen him on the “magic box”. Rhino is just as deluded as Bolt, convinced that this dog is a hero and his hero to boot, he hops in a transparent hamster ball and joins their team. Rhino is the movie’s everyman character, and perhaps one of the most well-drawn, hilarious sidekicks to appear on screen this year. He’s a pint-sized, fuzzy fanboy; a follows Bolt around with the kind of devotion you might see from a Star Wars nerd were he to discover that Luke Skywalker was real, and standing there right in front of him. He’s a cornucopia of site-gags and earnest excitement, a perfect compliment to Bolt’s single-minded devotion and Mittens’ well-worn feline cynicism.
Bolt isn’t content with having a couple of cute fuzzy animals though. It keeps pushing them further and takes every scene right to the limit of what can be done with it. This isn’t a movie happy with a single site gag or a big, final heartwarming moment. It takes each moment, each gag, and builds on it to push story and characters further. Even the simplest thing can become something funnier than you’d imagine. For instance Rhino rolling around in his little transparent ball is funny on its own. But when he gets excited, the ball fogs up, leaving him a furry shadow behind the foggy plastic, hopping up and down in excitement. Another movie might have called it a day right there. That’s funny enough. But the gag doesn’t end. Rhino, chattering with glee inside his misty container wipes two eyeholes in the condensation, and then just so we know what he’s feeling, beneath them draws a jaunty little smile. The audience, almost uncontrollably, erupts.
As I type this my Beagle, Tessa is sitting on my lap. She’s a little too heavy to be a proper lap dog and her size makes it difficult to reach my keyboard, but when she walks up next to my chair and looks up at me with one of those hopeful, hounddog expressions, I turn to mush. Bolt may start out as the story of a dog who thinks he has super powers, but by the time the credits roll it’s become a movie about the connection between man and dog, or in this case between Penny and Bolt. Disney has gotten back to doing something here which they used to do so well, and in recent years have gotten away from. This is a beautiful, big, epic story constructed for the sole purpose of saying something incredibly simple and emotional. Your dog loves you. Go home and give him a hug.