I don’t see a lot of movies, so my credentials as a movie critic are slim. However, in my defense, I’ll say that I’m an avid (you might say “obsessive”) reader of fiction, and I consider myself to be a better than fair judge of what makes a good book. A good book needs a plot, and it needs coherence. In other words, there needs to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs to tell a story. Side stories and digressions are fine, as long as they contribute to the overall story in the end.
The story must have interesting characters, and there has to be time in the book/movie to develop those characters. Not too much time–no droning on and beating your audience/reader over the head. But plot without character development is empty and boring. You might as well tell a story that goes like this: There were three people, Sally, Joe, and Mary. Sally shot Mary, then she and Joe got married. The end.
Character development need not take a lot of time, it’s just that you can’t leave it out. Books have more time for this, but books also rely solely on the reader’s imagination. Movies have the advantage of being able to engage you visually. In Bolt, the character of Mittens the cat is explained in about one minute, through both her statements and her facial expression.
Both and books and movies must elicit some emotional reaction. You can’t make a good book or movie out of an algebra problem. For kids, the story must be simply told, and yet be able to elicit emotions like love and fear (to an extent), and sadness, and relief. And really, that’s enough to make a good adult film as well, even if we are able to tolerate and maybe even crave more nuance. Who among you is so jaded that you don’t cry when Bambi’s mother dies? (If your answer is “Me”, please stop reading and go seek therapy. As Jeff Probst always says to the losing tribe on Survivor, “Go back to camp–I got nothing for you.”)
Totally animated movies (as opposed to hybrids like “Terminator” or “Lord of the Rings”) are mostly made for kids, and kid movies need certain components: a hero, friends of the hero, a villain, obstacles the hero and his or her friends must overcome, and a happy ending. Kids can see the same story over and over again without ever getting bored, but for it to be palatable to adults, the story has to be told in such a way that it isn’t just the names that have changed.
Bolt has all the necessary ingredients to be a classic for both kids and adults. A synopsis of the movie can be found anywhere online, so I’ll be brief. Bolt is a dog who is adopted from a shelter as a puppy by his “person”, a little girl named Penny. Penny and Bolt become TV stars, in which Bolt has amazing powers. The problem is that the TV studio goes to great lengths to make Bolt believe it’s all real, so he has no idea that he’s on TV or that his powers aren’t real. This is a total takeoff on “The Truman Show”, if Truman had been an animated dog 🙂 I suspect that had I seen more movies, there are other takeoffs later on that I would recognize. Certainly in the middle of the movie there are similarities to “Homeward Bound”, since Bolt and two unlikely companions–the cat Mittens and the hamster Rhino–must make their way cross-country from New York City back to Hollywood.
I was surprised to find that this movie was rated much higher than the movie The Tale of Despereaux, which was my second choice. But on further thought, I recall another charactistic of good movies and books: you have to be able to identify with the hero. In today’s modern movie-making, the hero is never perfect, which I consider an improvement. Often you have an anti-hero, whom you identify with in spite of yourself. There are no more John Waynes.
But as for the difference between Bolt and Despereaux, Despereaux is a mouse, and Bolt is a dog. Despereaux is a cute mouse, a heroic mouse, but Bolt is a dog, if you get my drift. He has loyalty to his “person”, as his “person” has loyalty to him as well. There is hilarity and danger and love and morality lessons (another necessary component of kid movies), and poignancy to the point of tears.
That being said, I have a new movie rating system, which I just made up. On a scale of 1-5, this is a 3-Kleenex movie. You should see it.