At least, that's what Bolt (John Travolta) thinks is going on. He's actually the star of a longrunning smash hit on TV, helmed by a pretentious showrunner (voiced by James Lipton) who's nicked more than a couple of cues from The Truman Show. The idea's that if Bolt buys into all of the cacklingly over-the-top Bourne-meets-Bond-meets-DC-Comics superheroics swirling around him, then so will the audience, and it doesn't hurt that they don't have to pony up for reshoots or second takes either. Bolt is starting to fade in the ratings, though, and the high sheriffs at the network are wagging their fingers at the stale, predictable scripts. The producers liven up the show with a cliffhanger where Bolt looks on helplessly as Doc Calico (Malcolm McDowall) finally gets his clutches on Penny (Miley Cyrus). It's the first time Bolt hasn't saved the day before the whole fade-to-black-roll-credits routine, and convinced that Penny really is in mortal peril, he busts out of the studio to mount a rescue. 'Course, Bolt's convinced that he really is a superdog, and after leashing himself to an intrigued-but-kinda-reluctant alley cat named Mittens (Curb Your Enthusiasm's Susie Essman) and palling around with Rhino, an overeager TV zombie of a hamster holed up in a plastic ball, he sets out from The Big Apple to sunny L.A. to track down Miss Penny.
Bolt does kind of feel as if Disney grabbed an armful of movies off the shelf -- both Toy Story flicks, The Truman Show, Tropic Thunder, Homeward Bound, a stack of those Hope/Crosby road movies from the '40s, and even some Bournes and Bonds for extra flavor -- and minced them together in a Ronco Chop-O-Matic. There's something naggingly familiar about the overall story, but Bolt is so well-made that it's easy enough to shrug all of that off, and it has a tendency to grab some stock clichés and take them in an entirely different direction. An American-as-apple-pie pup strongarming a streetwise kitty may be an animation mainstay, but I can't really think of another 'toon where the cat gave lessons on how to act like a normal dog. Maybe Bolt's overall arc rings a little too closely to Buzz Lightyear, but Disney hasn't just Xeroxed leftovers from Toy Story. Bolt doesn't sink into some sort of bleak despair when he finds out there's nothing all that superhuman...err, supercanine about himself. He's glum for a beat or two there, sure, but this pup really is a hero at heart -- bright, courageous, and unwaveringly loyal -- so he soldiers through it. There's a sincere sense of bonding and friendship between Bolt and Mittens, and if you catch me on the right day, I might even admit to feeling a lump in my throat during a couple of their more emotional scenes. This is a movie with a big heart pounding underneath it, and there's a nuzzle in the climax that'll ring true to anyone who's ever had a pup of their own. Not all of these sorts of scenes pack quite the emotional wallop they're very clearly aiming for, but Bolt is a lot more effective in that department than I waltzed in expecting.
Bolt looks amazing too, translating Disney's instantly recognizable house style to 3D against gorgeously rendered backdrops that have a painted, handcrafted look to them. I found myself really startled by the fluidity and expressiveness of the animation too. The designs are exaggerated and cartoonish, natch, but their movements are so lifelike and infused with so much personality that it's easy to get lost in them, and that just makes Bolt's emotionally intense sequences that much more effective. Bolt also has a strong cast of actors in tow. I'm not exactly a card-carrying member of the John Travolta fanclub, but he sells Bolt's strength and unwavering determination exceptionally well. Susie Essman is another standout as Mittens who hides her sweetly vulnerable underbelly under a thick chainmail of sarcasm, and...oh, I can't rattle off enough good things about Mark Walton -- who's not even a professional actor! -- as Rhino. Walton's performance got him a nod for an Annie, and he deserved it. I'm nerdy enough to flip out about hearing Malcolm McDowell and Nick Swardson (!) lending their voices too. Miley Cyrus is the only turn that really comes across as stuntcasting. It's passable but not in the same league as the rest of the names on the bill.
Disney did suffer a steady string of misfires for a while there, but between the criminally underrated Meet the Robinsons and now Bolt, the studio that defined what feature animation is seems to have once again found its footing. That's not to say that Bolt is an instant classic; I liked it a lot, but there's something a little more disposable about it than, say, Kung Fu Panda or WALL·E. Still, it's a thrill to see the studio at least back on the right trajectory now that John Lasseter has settled comfortably behind the big wheel of this ship, and Bolt is an easy recommendation for Disney devotees and animation fans in general. Recommended.
Not that anyone would stroll in expecting anything less, but Bolt looks amazing on this anamorphic widescreen DVD. Even though Disney didn't tack on any sort of 3D version this time around, there's still an enormous amount of depth and dimensionality on display here, and the level of clarity and fine detail are both remarkable. The movie's bold palette and stylized visuals pop on DVD; the scenes from the Bolt TV show nick their skewed tint and contrast straight out of the Michael Bay summer blockbuster playbook, and backgrounds frequently have a texture that looks handpainted rather than hammered out in a render farm somewhere in Palo Alto. It kind of goes without saying that the 1080p presentation on the Blu-ray disc is in another league altogether, but Bolt still looks terrific on DVD, and I don't think anyone who gives it a spin will feel as if they're settling for second best.
Bolt is framed around the star of a Bourne-meets-Bond hyperbudgeted action TV series, and this Dolby Digital 5.1 track (384Kbps) is every bit as overcaffeinated and aggressive as that sounds. Wall-rattling action stings in the score, a parade of megaton explosions, a super-sized bark that can take down a fleet of assault helicopters and badniks on bikes, and a crumbling building once the climax rolls around are all bolstered by a colossal low-end and exceptionally active surrounds. There's an unrelenting sense of directionality as well: Rhino's hamster ball skittering around, oodles of cars whizzing by, shards of an overturned towncar spilling over into every channel, and...heck, even B.A. Baracus barking in the rears. This Dolby Digital 5.1 track doesn't sport the same sort of clarity as the lossless audio on the Blu-ray disc, but it's still a five-star effort, veering away from any clipping and never letting the dialogue getting overwhelmed in the mix.
Also included are 5.1 dubs and subtitles in Spanish and French. English (SDH) captions are offered as well.
For a Disney tentpole that raked in close to $300 million at the box office worldwide, the extras are kinda skimpy this time around: a little over a half-hour of featurettes and deleted scenes are about it. The Blu-ray disc carries over the same set of extras in high-def, and it also adds on a short game and an extensive still gallery.
The Final Word
While it's not in the same league as Kung Fu Panda or WALL·E, Bolt takes a kind of familiar skeleton of a story and infuses it with a heckuva lot of charm, deliriously over-the-top action, and some startlingly beautiful animation. I didn't walk away itching to immediately give it another spin the way I have with some of the best animation from the class of '08, but Bolt is well-crafted, tugs on the heartstrings, and is more than a little bit of fun. Recommended.