Bolt (2008)

Rated: PG for some mild action and peril.
Length: 96 minutes.
Grade: BA-BB=B
Budget: $150 million
Box Office: $356 million (114 U.S., 180 Intl., 62 DVD)

Written by: Dan Fogelman and Chris Williams
Directed by: Byron Howard and Chris Williams
Starring: The voices of John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, and Mark Walton.

Bolt is the dog star of a spy action television show who believes the show to be reality, including his own super-powers. When he escapes the studio set, he must come to terms with his own non-super-ness as he journeys across the country hoping to be reunited with his beloved Penny.

Entertainment Value: B
There’s no way to say this too strongly. The first five minutes of this movie make the most exciting opening scene to an animated movie (possibly any movie) ever. But the problem is that the rest of the movie is what happens when the dog doesn’t have super-powers. So, even though I knew the premise of the movie, the beginning was so awesome and the rest so comparatively bland, that it was a letdown. And, to be honest, I was mostly bored by the movie, which seemed predicated on a seriously flimsy premise. Nevertheless, my kids loved it, although Spencer admitted not understanding the plot premise, which is confusing to younger kids. They even went so far as to play Bolt and Penny all this last week in the house. It should be mentioned that this movie probably became what it is as a result of John Lasseter (Pixar) becoming creative director at Disney in 2006.

Superficial Content: A-
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A, Illegality A
A girl gets trapped in a studio fire and her life is in danger. The opening sequence and several subsequent scenes involve sci-fi action violence such as helicopters, missiles, and electricity-spewing handed henchmen. Otherwise, there’s nothing. I thought this was perfectly fine for both of my boys, but then again, they’re boys who love Star Wars.

Significant Content: B Loyalty is important. Even without super-powers, sometimes we can do great things. It’s better to be normal than to be famous. It’s really silly to idolize celebrities. Fame is no good if you don’t enjoy it. The movie industry is exploitative. Agents are slimy. Dogs (like children) need to be dogs (or children).

Artistic/Thought Value: B
I would almost give this an A if only for the animation, which was mind-blowing and apparently based in the photo-realism genre and highly influenced by the paintings of Edward Hopper (Nighthawks, the diner painting). As for substance, I was torn, because for a long time I didn’t actually think there was any. But my subconscious kept probing (perhaps knowing that anything John Lassiter touches is going to have a point) and after several days I figured it out. The movie seems to be about Bolt, and it seems to be saying that it’s better to be an ordinary dog than to be a self-deceived movie star. But if you look again, you’ll see that the message is really about Penny and the ways Hollywood exploits child stars. Here’s my evidence: they swap her for another girl by changing faces in the end, the agent is a total cad to her and then tries to exploit her injuries at the end, everyone abandons her (except Bolt) in the fire, and her mom finally wises up and turns her back into a normal kid. But even the lessons with Bolt have too many obvious implications for child stars: his tragedy is never being able to play like a normal dog, he is so weird that he has to be taught how to do dog-things by a cat, and he isn’t even allowed to have a normal self-image. So, I think this movie is definitely taking a position on child-stars in movies, which is interesting since Miley Cyrus (herself a youth star) voices Penny.

Discussion Questions:
~If you had your choice, would you rather be a celebrity or an ordinary person? What answer do you think celebrities give? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
Mittens is sometimes mean and sometimes cynical. Why is she this way? How does Bolt change her? Have you ever met someone like this? What does Bolt’s example have to tell you about how to help such people?
~When Penny is pressured into accepting a replacement for Bolt, do you think she made the right choice? How does the studio executive try to persuade her?
~Can you see any ways in which the story of Bolt and his false sense of reality might be similar to our ideas about the truth and importance of this life prior to understanding the truths in the Bible?
~Bolt doesn’t realize he’s a superstar of a television show. In what ways does this prevent him from enjoying his status as a famous person? Can you think of some other movies involving heroes who either had to learn they weren’t as special as they thought or tried to prove that they really were more special than others believed. Consider Cars, Toy Story, Ratatouille, Monsters Inc., and Antz)
~Can false beliefs still inspire us to do good things? Is it always better to know the truth about things?
~In order to enjoy a film, the audience has to at some level believe the things are really taking place. If that’s so, what do you make of the ethical issue of actually deceiving actors (a dog) into believing he is his character? What about movies that try to convince you they really are real (such as start with “based upon a true story”)?
~Are television shows that disappoint us or frustrate us more popular than ones that always resolve in an hour? Consider Lost, 24, Desperate Housewives, and Heroes, for starters.
~Have you ever found yourself admiring or even idolizing celebrities? Why do we tend to do this?
~If it seems wrong to deceive a dog like this (perhaps because a dog can’t be expected to distinguish such a well-crafted make-believe from true reality), would that also make it immoral to make movies and television for children who can’t either?

Overall Grade: B
It’s good, the animation is amazing, and I suspect a slightly slower production schedule (the normal 4 years rather than 18 months after major changes were made) would have turned this into a significantly better movie.

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