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December 3, 2008

The day Lassie went to the moon

Reviewing recent box office totals, you might think that the last quarter of 2008 has been very good for dog movies. When I last visited the subject (Oct. 9), I failed to note that Disney’s “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” opened that week at No. 1, scoring $29 million in its first weekend. I wouldn’t have thought that that special effects technique they use to make animals look like they’re talking (as good as it is, really, you’d swear the animals were really talking!) was enough to lift a feature to the top spot, but damn, a week later it was still there, grossing another $17.5 million.

Last week, Disney went back to the dog pile and dished up “Bolt,” a fully animated cross-country road picture featuring a disparate trio of displaced domestic companions. While it came in third behind “Twilight” and the latest James Bond feature, it still scored $27 million its opening weekend.

While the initial premise of “Bolt” — that a trained dog, playing the part of a super-powered, bionic spy dog, doesn’t know that he’s really just an ordinary pooch — is kind of funny, and the 3-D effects for the opening sequences are pretty great, the execution doesn’t make any sense, and the story gets tiresome when Bolt accidentally gets mailed to New York and has to work his way back home to Hollywood. The inevitable realization that he isn’t “super” provides an opportunity for Bolt to grow as a character. Neat. “Bolt” ends with a mismatched message about loving your home, no matter how humble.

The plot of “Ay ay Chihuahua” (as Oden referred to it) grafts about 60 percent of “Bolt” onto a winking insult about empty-headed celebrities who dote over their little doggie friends. The titular pooch, Chloe, voiced by Drew Barrymore, is a perfect cliché of obnoxious attitude, but when she gets lost in Mexico and (get this!) has to work her way back to Beverly Hills with the help of some miscellaneous misplaced former pets and etc., she has an experience that provides some supposed character development (the Chihuahua breed is a mighty, mighty breed!) that helps her find her true strength, embrace real friendship and disregard the trappings of wealth.

Both movies have a scene in which another dog is mistaken for the main character at a significant moment that leads to a significant bit of manipulated pathos. And both have a moment when the main character is feared to be dead due to injuries sustained while trying to save a friend from danger, but, in each case, they miraculously recover. I barely had a chance to well up. Also, both movies find ways to deride the mentality of Southern California, i.e. self-loathing has finally reached Disney Studios!

As it happens, my son and I watched “Old Yeller” on television (saved on DVR from when it aired on Turner Classic Movies a few weeks ago) the same day we went to see “Bolt.” The closing comments by Ben Mankiewicz concerned the standard question asked among youngsters who saw it for the first time 20-40 years ago: “Did you cry?” Of course you did, and you didn’t feel bad about it, because “Old Yeller” is basically an honest effort.

The message delivered at the end, by long-absent-father Fess Parker, is written and delivered in an awkward way that rings terribly true to the way fathers talk to their sons about difficult matters. At first he tells him that he should just forget about it, but when that idea fails completely, he tells his son that it is sometimes helpful to deal with the bad things about life by looking for good things somewhere else. It’s a brilliant moment that is easily lost between Old Yeller’s death and Tommy Kirk’s subsequent affection for the yellow pup the family had recently adopted.

I guess I shouldn’t be disappointed that Oden preferred “Bolt” to “Old Yeller.” I was impressed that he sat through the older movie without complaining.

 

For further review: The December issue of Back Issue, a magazine dedicated to the history of the comic book industry, offers a cover-to-cover tribute to the astonishing career of comics writer Steve Gerber, the creator of “Howard the Duck,” who died last February of pulmonary fibrosis. Truth to tell, I wouldn’t be as messed up as I am if Gerber hadn’t wrecked my mind with some of the satirical and psychological horrors he created in the early ’70s. Thanks, Steve!