First Theatrical Release: November 21, 2008
First Home Viewing Release: March 22, 2009
My Rating: 4/5 stars
Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection
Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters include Penny, Penny’s mom, and Mittens. The only conversation between two females that’s not about a male (mostly Bolt) occurs at the end of the movie, when Penny is in a fire and her mother inquires about her condition.
Bolt — yet another movie from the post-traditional animation era that I had not seen before this project. But unlike Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, this one was not for lack of interest. I just never got around to it.
As the movie opened, I couldn’t help but think of other dog-centric Disney movies, such as Lady & the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians. Changing sensibilities about pet adoption were clear right from the beginning — I noted that we see Bolt adopted from an “animal rescue” as opposed to the type of pristine pet shop Lady most likely came from. In addition, while pet shelters were still portrayed as places of fear and possible despair, they did not approach the death-row atmosphere of Lady & the Tramp‘s pound.
This movie also tackles one of my favorite themes in fiction, which is a character’s coming to terms with the real world vs. what he previously believed or wished to be true, as Bolt truly believes he has all the superpowers of the character he portrays until about halfway into the film when he learns that he is just an ordinary dog. Then he must begin the process of rebuilding his identity and finding worth and beauty in being ordinary — a message that can be especially comforting to children who are beginning to grapple with leaving their own worlds of imagination and pretend behind to schlep along with the rest of us in the adult world.
Still, I didn’t find myself feeling inspired to write about any of these aspects of the movie. Instead, I got hung up on, and wanted to write about … the cat.
So, Let’s Talk About Mittens
I’ve always been a “cat person.” Even when I was young, I felt resentful of Disney’s portrayal of cats — Lucifer from Cinderella and the Siamese from Lady & the Tramp made a much bigger impression on me than the more benign kitty portrayals in Pinocchio and Alice in Wonderland. After watching the entire Disney canon, I’ve come to the conclusion that Disney may not have it out for cats after all — although their cat-centric films (The Aristocats, Oliver & Company) are consistently less beloved than the dog-centric ones, and dogs are almost universally portrayed as good even in minor roles, whereas Disney seems to feel a lot more ambivalent about cats.
In Bolt, Disney fully wrestles with that ambivalence onscreen, and perhaps even takes its first steps toward resolving it once and for all.
We first meet Mittens, the movie’s primary cat character, when some pigeons send Bolt after her because she has been extorting food from them for “protection” (and also to placate her so that she won’t decide to eat them instead.) At first, I was a bit annoyed — after all, not only did it seem Disney’s “type-casting” of cats as villains was at play again, but this shady character was also one of the only females in the story. Double whammy when it comes to malicious media portrayals.
As the movie unfolds, though, we see that Mittens is a more complicated character than she at first appears. We get hints that she has some sort of “past” as a pet — she is far more traumatized by the thought of going to the animal shelter than the naive Bolt is, and she claims she’s “done time” in a human home before she attained freedom. The truth comes out about 3/4 through the movie, when she tells Bolt that she once had a family — who moved away and abandoned her, declawed and defenseless.
Suddenly, Mittens’ past as an “extortionist” takes on a different hue. Not only was she physically incapable of carrying out her threats against the pigeons, but she was physically incapable of effectively hunting, period. Sure, she could have scavenged on her own — but that likely would have entailed confronting other cats with claws intact, as well as aggressive rats (which cats often won’t challenge.) So her scheme of capitalizing on threats may well have been her most viable option after her former family literally crippled and then abandoned her.
Although I was initially nauseated by Mittens’ confession to Bolt that cats hate dogs because the want to BE them, she has a point when it comes to the fate of domesticated cats versus dogs. While epidemic amounts of adoptable pets remain homeless, every shelter I’ve ever visited has an overflow of cats, often refusing to accept any more for certain periods of times. When I went through training to volunteer at a shelter, I was the only one there specifically interested in working with and socializing the cats; our coordinator also referred to them as an afterthought, essentially conceding that spending time with them “wasn’t that bad.” Despite their popularity on the Internet and the fact that there are more pet cats in the U.S. than pet dogs (although there are more DOG OWNERS than cat owners, probably due to some people’s propensity to have a lot of cats …), they are still very much second-class citizens in the pet world.
In addition to being something of an afterthought in animal rescue organizations, cats are more likely to be given up or put down due to behavior issues than dogs, and families are less likely to spend money to treat a sick cat than an ailing dog. (At a Thanksgiving gathering last week, one attendee complained about a friend who had spent $2,000 to “save” their cat — while I was not ashamed to add that I spent $2,000 on a cat I COULDN’T save — meaning she died in spite of that $2,000 — and that I did not regret a penny.)
Several years ago, one of my good friends sent me an article linking the portrayal of cats in the media to the statistics about cats’ lower status as pets and/or family members. It pointed out the types of things I had begun noticing even as a child — that cats were more likely to be portrayed as lazy or evil than dogs, and that our culture lacks the sort of beloved “cat icon” characters that we have for dogs, such as Lassie or Old Yeller. Think of the sweet and fun-loving Snoopie versus the lazy and manipulative Garfield. This could theoretically translate into people being less invested in their own cats or in cats as a species.
No one else I’ve tried to explore this theory with seems to give it much weight — although the world is 71% “dog people” according to an AP Study, which means most of the people I’ve discussed this with were also most likely dog people prone to being dismissive of cats.
How does this all tie back to Bolt, aside from giving some real-world weight to Mittens’ plight? Well, whether intentional or not, Bolt manages to play out this relationship between the media portrayal of cats and the fates of real-life cats right within the confines of the movie. Bolt is a TV star who initially believes all cats are agents of evil because … surprise, surprise, cats are minions to the villain in his TV series. Even when the cats are “off set,” they are obnoxious and rude to Bolt, further cementing the idea that cats are so often cast as villains because it’s true to their real-life “natures.” In fact, Bolt first seeks out Mittens because he assumes she is an agent of evil — when she, in fact, ends up being his greatest ally, teaching him what he needs to know to live in “the real world,” and even how to be a dog. Yet despite all her good qualities and her tragic backstory, the movie also shows us the world’s general reaction to cats — while Bolt gets food showered on him each time he gives campers in an RV park his cute, begging face, Mittens gets things thrown at her.
What’s brilliant in this movie is that it manages both to perpetuate negative stereotypes about cats (the green-eyed man’s minions) and to then show how those very media portrayals ultimately harm cats. I don’t know if the movie set out to be so very meta — I’m actually guessing no, and that it’s just a happy coincidence that this movie somehow exemplifies the reality of the cat/media tension and the harm it can cause — but I sort of love it for it. (And thankfully, Mittens does get her happy ending. Seems Penny’s mom is a bit of a “cat person” — I knew I liked her!)
Thanks to the Internet, I think cats are finally getting their proper due in the media and beginning to be seen for the silly, spontaneous, unique, and charming creatures that they are. Hopefully their treatment in the “real world” will catch up soon.