The disembodied popsicle known as Walt Disney lined his pockets by anthropomorphizing anything and everything, filling some deep societal need that plain living-breathing folks just couldn’t muster. Beginning with a mouse, of course, he branched out into the rest of the natural kingdom over the next few years. Soon, animated critters exhausted his imagination and he moved on to real live animals.
His “True Life Adventure” series used stretched, manipulated, coerced and faked documentary footage to relate stories of wildlife and survival that engaged children by giving animals names, families and other motivations non-biological. Often staging scenes to capture more “realistic” footage, the films are wildly counter-factual and still produce howls of derision from activists the world over. Most infamously, after weeks of fruitless shooting in below-zero temperatures, a crew once was forced to help along the famed suicidal tendencies of tundra-dwelling lemmings, oft-reported throwing themselves off cliffs in a furry emo mass. Years later, turns out those suicidal tendencies were entirely apocryphal. Whoops!
If the thought of a handful of freezing interns shooing innocent lemmings over a cliff’s edge in order to mimic some misbegotten biological urge seems on the ickish side, then hop aboard the new Disney train! Have we got a belatedly penitent show for you!
“Bolt” is most simply about lies and the lying liars who lie them — notably the sleazy entertainment industry and its feigned “realism” [irony alert!]. Concerning a brave young canine thespian who’s been fooled into believing that special-effect superpowers on a crappy television show reflect his actual abilities, the film enacts the typical road movie cum tragicomedy-of-remarriage that constitutes most child-and-dog tales. Every night after the title canine finishes shooting fantastical action sequences with his owner, Penny, she removes him to a trailer where he’s totally convinced of every danger they’ve just “survived.” She returns the next day and they do it all over again. When the show’s producers have the bright idea of leaving one episode on a cliffhanger, with Penny still in trouble and our hero locked helplessly away, Bolt manages a daring escape.
The incredible journey of awakening that follows makes good on the promise of a cross-country adventure that involves a cat, a dog and a heroic be-bubbled hamster. The voice performances are lively all around, and for a movie ostensibly about the perils of manipulation, the filmmakers jerk tears aplenty out of the endless well of pathos found in imperiled puppy pupils. The animals themselves are undeniably cute, apace with the detailed fluffiness of other fine studios, and they just, well, they just … Wook at those fwuffy wittle ears! Yesh. Wook at those ears! Yesh. Wook at them! Yesh. Who’s my fluffy puppy? Who’s my fluffy little puppy? Yesh!
Where was I?
The movie itself is inoffensive and even engaging, with not too much of the pernicious savvy of modern children’s fare. One image, however, sticks out as worthy of the studio’s apparent goals. Bolt endures an unseemly amount of physical violence, but it’s the induced neurosis of the film’s central lie that audiences should find maddeningly sad and revealing. When Bolt, locked away in a trailer after a dangerous day’s work, grits and jumps and shudders at the world in which he’s been made to believe, do we recognize the cruelty of his circumstances? Do our children know those perceived threats, that flash-bang world, that dangerous lie? Do they dream about it at night? Who is this dog? Why do we lie to him?