I'm trying to muster up some enthusiasm for Disney's latest animated film, Bolt. It's cute. It has funny pigeons. My eight-year-old niece is going to like it, especially since Miley Cyrus is involved. It's the first non-Pixar Disney feature produced by John Lasseter, who directed the Toy Story movies and Cars. It's got Hollywood jokes in it, including a director voiced by James Lipton, and a comically pushy agent. And yet I never thrilled to the story or the characters; I wasn't half as amused as I'd been by Kung Fu Panda, a film for kids I saw earlier this year.
The story should sound familiar to anyone who grew up with Lassie movies or other animal-road-trip films, but with a Hollywood twist. The title character, a cute dog called Bolt (John Travolta), is fiercely attached to "his person," teenage Penny (Miley Cyrus). Bolt saves Penny's life on a regular basis as she and her dad are pursued by the evil Dr. Calico and his nasty cats ... or so he thinks. The truth is that Bolt is the star of a TV series, but the cast and crew are very careful not to let him know that he's not in real-life situations. So he believes he's a genetically engineered dog with laser eyes and amazing strength and a supersonic bark. When Bolt is separated from Penny and ends up halfway across the country on his own, for the first time he's in a world that isn't a soundstage or his trailer. Now, how will he get back to Penny?
One problem is that both Penny and Bolt are fairly bland characters -- earnest and loyal and not much else. The supporting characters go a long way toward balancing this with one-liners and physical humor. Susie Essman (Curb Your Enthusiasm) voices Mittens, a cynical cat who ends up (literally) entangled with Bolt, and a hyper hamster in a ball (Mark Walton) helps keep the movie from dragging or lagging. Also, I have never liked pigeons much in real life, but the pigeons in Bolt may be the funniest thing about the movie.
I haven't felt this lukewarm about a children's movie since -- well, since Cars. Both tend to sink into sentiment and take the easy and predictable way through a story, lacking depth. I often feel the same way about romantic comedies: no surprises, cliched dialogue, and a longing for some new and different take on the issue. But Bolt isn't the dog-movie equivalent of Punch-Drunk Love. I realize that the target audience is not only a lot younger than I am, but they've seen fewer movies, so perhaps everything will seem new and fresh and fun.
I did see Bolt in 3-D, and I can't remember the last time I saw a 3-D movie. The 3-D effects provided some novelty and a few cool "coming atcha!" moments, but didn't add much to the film overall. The kids in the audience loved the 3-D to the point where they were shrieking and cheering at the company credits before the movie -- although I think they would have cheered at Dr. Tongue's 3-D House of Pancakes, they were so psyched by the effects. See it in 3-D if you can, just for the extra bit of fun, but you're not missing much if you can't.
On the other hand, my favorite animation scenes in the film were -- once again -- the hand-drawn style in the closing credits. I know that the 3-D style is more realistic, and it's impressive to see just how realistic the animators can make that style these days. But the animation in this film didn't do much for me, although it worked effectively in the opening sequences where Penny and Bolt are being chased by the TV show bad guys.
Bolt is an entertaining movie for kids, especially younger Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana fans, since Cyrus even contributes a song to the movie. It's better than many other recent non-Pixar animated films from Disney, and it'll give families something to see in a theater together over the Thanksgiving holiday. However, there's not much here for grownups to enjoy ... apart from watching the kids get a kick out of the film. (And the pigeons.)