Disney's latest animated effort (Bolt, 2008, directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams) comes as something of a surprise--hasn't Walt's Rat Factory turned the animation reins over to the more commercially and critically successful Pixar yet? Do they still insist on churning out 'family-friendly' fare so totally devoid of point and bite and flavor that the movie ends up like an order of McDonald's French fries confined under glass (see Morgan Spurlock's Super-Size Me (2004) DVD extras, for what may arguably be the most terrifying and disgusting ten minutes you will ever experience)? Will this be yet another occasion for obvious moral uplift, the Factory's umpteenth attempt at affirming traditional family values over decadent modernist lifestyles (the better to raise perfectly compliant Disney-product-consuming youths with healthy credit ratings and vigorous appetites)?
Well--yes. Animation was never much of an invitation to realism, but the premise they come up for this one strains credulity, even allowing for the freedom implicit in the medium. A dog, Bolt (voice of John Travolta) plays hero opposite of Penny, his "person" (voice of Miley Cyrus), in a long-running TV show full of giant attack copters, sinister high-tech ninjas, and hair-singeing fireballs. That's not the unlikely part; we're asked to believe that animal psychology has developed in sophistication and effectiveness to the point that they can fool a dog into thinking its make-believe life (attack copters and ninjas and fireballs and all) is real (of course an actual dog only has to sniff to know when its leg's being pulled).
The concept's not entirely original--it's basically an inside-out version of Peter Weir's fairly interesting The Truman Show (1998), which featured an equally deluded protagonist (he thought he was just an ordinary guy when in fact the world turned around him); Weir's film in turn borrowed its premise from science fiction writer Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint, written some forty years before. Dick's scenario is vastly more ambitious, of course--not surprising, coming from the mind of a man writer and critic Brian Aldiss called one of two or three geniuses working in the genre. Dick's protagonist Ragle Gumm believes he lives in suburban America, in 1959; actually the year is 1998, and the town he lives in is an elaborate constructed hoax designed to prevent him from learning that Earth is at war with one of its former colonies, and only Gumm's precognitive ability to point out the location of the next nuclear strike (which Gumm does when working out a series of newspaper puzzles) keeps them alive.
A deceptively wholesome image cut straight out of the Saturday Evening Post unraveling into a darker, altogether more surreal scenario, that's the trajectory of Dick's novel (The Truman Show managed to reduce the stakes from survival in a nuclear war to audience share of a TV show). Bolt scampers in the opposite direction, from bombastic Michael Bay action movie to an ordinary family watching TV in the living room--not exactly an inferior premise, I'm all for stories about sleepwalkers waking up to sober reality, but the endpoint Disney proposes--portly mother, purring cat, girl playing with dog--has such a manufactured look that you suspect that of being the fantasy, not the TV show (at least in the show you have a sense of eccentric if talented people working hard, sacrificing selfish comforts for the greater good).
It doesn't help that the main character and his "person" are such a dull pair. Travolta's a good actor, and when he's at his best few are as good at establishing a simple and direct rapport straight through the camera at the audience as he is, but he needs to use his body's physical eloquence (can one remember--or rather, can one ever forget--his strut down a Brooklyn street in the opening of Saturday Night Fever (1977)?), he needs to be impudent, he needs to be sexy, he needs to be charming. Bolt is a straight-shooting character, and as such you want an accomplished comedian capable of skewering the character's straightforwardness (that's why the voice casting in the otherwise humdrum Toy Story (1995) was inspired--was probably the only thing I really liked about the movie: Tim Allen's Buzz Lightyear was so heroic he bordered on the megalomanic, not to mention psychotic). Travolta, who does sincerity intensely, can only play the character on one level; doesn't help that he's cast opposite Cyrus, a Disney teeny-bopper and vocal non-entity, or that the wonderful Malcolm McDowell is largely wasted as the picture's putative villain.
But the movie's not a total loss; there are gigantic laughs here, and wonderful feats of derring-do. I'm talking about Rhino, the heroic little sidekick of Bolt, who rolls about in his near-indestructible hamster ball and is voiced by vocalist veteran Mark Walton. Strange, but arguably the funniest gags in recent American animation involve mostly monomanic characters--the Ice Age movies were a bore, but skittering through the main narrative was this running gag about a squirrel and his beloved all-too-slippery nut that was the best thing about that picture. Likewise with the penguins in the Madagascar flicks; likewise with Rhino here. If Bolt represents the ideal of heroism cast into doubt and then re-affirmed, Rhino represents the ideal of heroism rising beyond doubt and despair, heading somewhere in the general direction of dementia. Rhino's mind is pure; Rhino's belief in Bolt's powers is invincible, elemental, grand. The fact that Rhino's also a furry little ball of fat makes that grandeur all the more hilarious.
And Rhino delivers; he performs amazing feats of strength (like pushing a ladder across the street through ball-power alone) and speed (like chasing and running down a pickup truck) and cunning (he opens latch doors and escapes from a dog's viselike jaws using saliva as lubricant and a kind of patented flywheel-release technique as a launch mechanism). Unlike Bolt, whenever faced with adversity he doesn't despair; he hunkers down and squeezes his fists, the glare from his beady eyes burning holes into the back of your head. Bolt isn't much of a picture, is probably a good way to park your kids in a theater for ninety minutes while you indulge in entertainment more mature and adult in nature like--oh, say, fecal paintball. That little rodent, though, he should have his own movie.
(First printed in Businessworld, 11.28.08)