Monday, March 22, 2010

Trying too hard to justify your premise - Bolt

Anyone here seen Bolt? I caught it recently when it was running on cable, and as much as I wanted to just put my brain on hold and enjoy it, there's a scene early in the film that pretty much begged me to nitpick the entire premise. The irony? It's pretty clear this scene was written to head off any naysaying of the premise.

The set-up is simple - Bolt is a dog actor who stars in a TV-show where week-after-week he saves his owner Penny from evil spies. The opening scene makes the formula pretty clear and then a subsequent scene "hangs a lantern on it." Every week, Penny gets captured and the dog - who has been given super powers - saves her. In order to get a realistic performance from the dog, the creators of the show have shot it in such a way that Bolt believes the show is real.

If it helps, think The Truman Show, but with a dog. Of course, the problem is that this TV show is a heck of a lot more complicated than The Truman Show, with regular stunts and special effects. If you think about it, that means that any scene involving the dog must be achieved in one take. That's an implausibility that a good writer shouldn't want the audience to think of, lest the practicality of the whole premise falls apart. Unfortunately, before the main plot has really even started, we get the following speech from the show's producer, voiced brilliantly by James Lipton:

"You see a dog. I see an animal who believes with every fiber of his being, every fiber, that the girl he loves is in mortal danger. I see a depth of emotion on the face of that canine the likes of which has never been captured on screen before!

[...] "We jump through hoops to make sure that Bolt believes everything is real. It's why we don't miss marks. It's why we don't reshoot, and it's why we most certainly do not let the dog see boom mikes! Because, Mindy from the network, if the dog believes it, the audience believes it."

Sorry. I don't believe it. This is the sort of explanation that I once saw The Agony Booth refer to as a "left-handed explanation... an explanation that's at least as stupid as the plot hole it's supposed to explain." The script is trying too hard to justify why Bolt thinks he has superpowers.

Why is that important? Because after shooting a cliffhanger scene where Penny is "kidnapped," Bolt escapes from his trailer into the real world, where he's determined to save Penny. Naturally much of the humor arises from the fact that he doesn't have super powers and keeps expecting things to work the way they do on the show. It's a little like an inverted Galaxy Quest. Instead of everyone else thinking he's a hero, Bolt is the one convinced of his own importance.

So for that, all the audience really needs to buy is that Bolt believes he has powers, and frankly, that's a problem that easily could have been solved by Bolt simply not understanding fantasy. It's a mindset that easily could have developed even without the show jumping through hoops to convince Bolt that everything happening on the show is real.

See, with Lipton's speech, all it does is make me aware of how silly it is that this show is produced in this fashion. It highlights a nitpick that would be easy to gloss over otherwise, once the plot was in motion. Then it gives a really stupid explanation to a very good question. I know that I often harp that one must justify their premise, but writing like this actually undermines the premise. It's good to have an idea of how elastic a reality your viewers will accept.

After all, which is more believable - that a dog just doesn't understand that what happens on a TV show is fantasy, or that a production involving hundreds of people and millions of dollars is built around getting a method performance out of a dog?

If the whole movie was about the production of Bolt's show, then perhaps that producer's speech would be relevant. Since it's not, all it does is add a neon arrow pointing right at the movie's flaws.


  1. It would be interesting to compare the spec script to the shooting script. I wonder if the writer had this covered but someone else in the chain asked for the Lipton section to be added?

  2. I agree. That comment stuck out at me too, although I wondered if it was meant as a hit to the producers LOL

    I found you through Script Frenzy and I do intend to participate as I have a story that needs sharpened with dialogue and action. (I have both, but a little too much back story, so away I go) I only need to learn how to use the script format program UGH

  3. This didn't bother me at all, and I actually liked BOLT a lot. If you consider the movie's tone and many of the jokes in it, they're poking fun at Hollywood - including many implausibilities.

  4. I totally agree. Bolt was horrible. It was almost as bad as 'The tooth fairy'
    When Pixar can write and make an animated movie that is believable, beautiful and convincing to both kids and adults-why can't Disney?