The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas & Bolt

Palermo on dogs and boys.

The link between the WWII drama The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and the Disney flick Bolt is that their lead characters defy the worlds they're born into. That sense of exploration is why both of these movies are open-minded and open-hearted.

If you've seen ads for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, you may have asked, "How and when did the Holocaust become its own arthouse subgenre?" There are people who think any dramatic movie set during the Holocaust is in poor taste since no movie can encompass it. But I've yet to see one foolish enough to try.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, like The Counterfeiters, The Pianist and others, uses this scar of history to explore morality against incalculable evil. Writer/director Mark Herman adapts John Boyne's novel about a friendship between German and Jewish eight-year-old boys. Bruno (Asa Butterfield) goes exploring and befriends Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a saturnine kid stuck in a "farm" behind barbed wire.

Bruno shamefully tells his tutor that he doesn't read newspapers. He hasn't been corrupted by his parents' racism.

It's the sucker-punch ending that's going to be the biggest topic of debate. I understand why it's there. But the movie is told as Bruno's experience, and the ending's relevance is in how it affects two secondary characters. Herman hasn't justified the perspective shift, so what happens feels exploitative. But his matter-of-fact take can make some minor events, like Bruno's 12-year-old sister covering her wall in Hitler posters, resonate with disgust. And he doesn't push for innocence in Bruno and Shmuel's meetings.

What does this have to do with a dog cartoon? Both Bruno and Bolt learn that their closest friends don't always come from socially approved places. Bolt's life has been based around one human girl---his owner, Penny. He flips over cars for her, stops villains on motorcycles and even fights using the heat rays that come out of his eyes. Then dog and girl are separated. Bolt can't seem to use his superpowers. Stunts hurt a lot more. It's explained to him: Until this point, he's been living in an elaborate Truman Show.

After criticizing the combat direction in Quantum of Solace, the scene that opens Bolt had me ready to call it the year's best action movie. I don't know if there's a substantial audience which can appreciate the visual wit of moving into a close-up of a drinking cup toppling over from the impact of an explosion 200 yards away. I'm just happy Bolt goes there.

And so Bolt has to contend with being a regular dog. Only he does it on the terms that work best for him---finding support from his new best friends, a hamster and a cat (the same species that was his mortal enemy when life was a TV show). He also gets a human speaking voice (John Travolta) when people aren't around and that's the movie's biggest misjudgment. Because the script doesn't let him be funny and only has him agonize, the dog loses his cuteness when he talks.

Bolt's unique world view highlights that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas would have more personality if it had the courage to be a kids' movie. Both films bring emotion to good characters who are rebelling against bad ideas. In each case, the message is that sometimes not understanding is the virtuous position.

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