Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Bolt from the Blue that leaves me blue...

First of all, I apologize for not posting more recently. I have had a very busy life and have had to put a lot of things on hold, including personal hygiene and personal creations. Hopefully I'll make up for that soon. Anyway, here's my first post in a while...about my pecuilar feelings about a very good movie.

I was pleasantly surprised, but later upset, by Bolt. The later upset came after thinking about the story.

As Michelle reminded me, this film was in development for a long time under the title American Dog. It was apparently quickly rewritten under the orders of Mr. Eisinger (after the original creative team was fired) and rushed to completion in 18 months, rather than the two or three years a CGI feature normally take.

The story's a fairly standard comedy about a deluded soul. In this case, the deluded soul is Bolt (voice by John Travolta), a pup rescued from a shelter by a young girl named Penny (voice by Miley Cyrus). Five years later, Penny is an actress in an elaborate spy/thriller TV show, and Bolt is the star.

The show "Bolt" in which Bolt appears is clearly a riff on the original Inspector Gadget cartoons; Penny tries to rescue her captured scientist father from a mad scientist, and Bolt is a superdog that rescues her time after time. (Inspector Gadget's niece was named Penny this Disney ripping off another animated cartoon, a la Simba/Kimba?) And another couple of borrowed riffs exist in this film, partially from The Truman Show, but more realistically from the production legend of The Blair Witch Project.

As in The Truman Show, the only way to get Bolt to "act" is a variation of the Stanislavksy Method. He is treated to believe that he truly is a dog with laser-beam eyes and a devastating super-bark, and that the show's adventures are "real." As in Blair Witch, where the actors were deprived of sleep and understanding of the story and made to "live" their adventures, the show's producers are unwilling to trust Bolt to be an actor.

Through various plot incidents, Bolt escapes the studio and is shipped to New York. He fights his way across country with the reluctant aid of cynical alley cat Mittens (Susie Essman) and a hamster in an exercise ball who's a fanboy, Rhino (Mark Walton). Most of the way Bolt believes he has the powers of his TV character, and is mystified when he bleeds, or can't break through a chain link fence.

Okay, unless you're under eight years old I don't have to tell you how the story plays out. And it plays out fairly well. In the world of this movie, animals can talk to each other, even cross-species, but not to humans. Bolt believes that Mittens is an associate of the TV show's master villain (voiced briefly by Malcolm McDowell). It takes a cross-country journey for them to eventually like one another, like in a lot of other road pictures.

The movie is also very pretty. Walt Disney Animation has borrowed a lot of Pixar's technology. And while the visuals aren't up to Pixar's best, they work in context. The film doesn't even mind going to iconography. As the trio travels across country, they are shown on a placemat map stolen from a Waffle House-like chain. (Unlike the real Waffle House, Waffle Hut stretches past the South into the North and West.) The characters appear as cutouts riding along in various vehicles across the map.

The problems I had with Bolt occurred afterwards. The film portrays the real "villains" as the Hollywood establishment, including a sleazy agent (voice by Greg Germann) who enforces Bolt's separation from Penny, tries to substitute another dog for Bolt, and is just freaking creepy. Penny goes along with the whole mess, because she is a trouper, but she would like a life for herself and Bolt, and is devastated when Bolt goes missing.

This is my problem. Penny the CGI character is not much younger than Miley Cyrus, the real person and heavily-exploited Disney star.

There's already been controversy about Cyrus, with her father Billy Ray Cyrus allowing her to appear in a naked-back photo shot for a magazine. Celebrity clock-watchers also know that the Hannah Montana craze is about to enter its third year, the time when kids get bored with their idols and move on to someone new. Disney knows this too, which is why the Hannah Montana hype and live concerts were so heavily pushed in this year of the Bush Depression.

I'm not spoiling much by saying that, in the film's denouement, Penny leaves Hollywood for a happy life with Bolt, Mittens, Rhino and her single mother. They are apparently living in the old Kent Farm in Smallville, Kansas, from the looks of the house-with-barn in the film's closing shot. (I hope they don't go digging in the basement and find leftover "meteor rocks" or Kryptonian devices.)

I hated that so-called happy ending. Penny was an actress, and apparently a good one. Bolt apparently learned enough about life that he could be a real actor himself, working consciously without all that delusion. You don't simply throw talent like that away and live in retirement, going to school like a normal kid and the like. At least you wouldn't in a fair world.

And that's where my real discomfort begins.

Sadly, in the real world, performing children like Miley Cyrus get used up and discarded by Hollywood on a regular basis. Very few kid actors make it through to adulthood as active performers; Melissa Joan Hart and Bill Mumy are among the few that have. Danny Bonnaduce and Gary Coleman are far more typical, with their lives in rehab and shambles. Disney has a schoolroom full of kid actors currently on the air, who will go nowhere after their Disney Channel series disappear into obscurity. And they won't have the loot to move into the Kent Farm's old turf like Penny, despite the "Jackie Coogan laws" about child actors.

Cyrus got the part of voicing Penny largely because of her fame, and Disney's continuing exploitation of that fame. Raven Symone didn't, because she is one of those aging-and-disappearing kid stars Disney employs. (Her show, That's So Raven, is pretty close to disappearing off ABC's kid show block.) It almost makes me wonder if being cast in this movie was a deliberate warning for Cyrus about what is to come.

Bolt is a fun film, and probably the best product Walt Disney Animation has put out in the last few years. But the shadow of real-world kid entertainment, and the film's dark view of Hollywood and the entertainment business, will keep me from buying it on DVD. And if something happens to Miley Cyrus in the meantime - if she does something adult that isn't compatible with being a Disney star and she suddenly disappears - that may make things even darker.

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