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"If you make a computer animated movie don't tie two characters together. It will only break your heart."
The Pixar influence is strong in Disney's animated Bolt, raising it several notches above recent in-house animated movies and reinvigorating the market for family fare. Neither a set-up for a future Broadway musical nor a stack of cultural-reference in-jokes, this simple "Lassie Come Home" story is a winner from frame one forward. But be forewarned, as Bolt is loaded with a tricky sub-textural message for your impressionable small fry: there is a difference between fantasy entertainment and reality, and it's a good idea to be clear as to where one stops and the other begins.
Even better, Bolt is a home video knockout in the HD brilliance of Blu-ray, which flatters the film's impressive, distinctive art direction.
Little white dog Bolt (voice: John Travolta) stars with his young owner Penny (voice: Miley Cyrus) in a popular fantasy action TV series that casts him as a superhero mutt able to fly, shoot heat rays from his eyes and emit seismic shock waves with his "super bark". The problem is that, as in the movie The Truman Show, little Bolt has been raised to think that he possesses these superpowers. When not rescuing Penny on TV, he's kept isolated in a motor home in the studio. Penny would just like to have her ordinary pet back, but the producers need Bolt to believe that he's a super-canine so he'll stay motivated. That's when a series of silly mishaps results in Bolt being shipped to the streets of New York. Convinced that Styrofoam packing peanuts have sapped him of his superpowers, Bolt allows himself to be conned into thinking that the black alley cat Mittens (voice: Susie Essman) is an agent of the bad guys on his TV show. Bolt forces Mittens to cross the country with him, to find Penny. Along the way they join forces with the exuberant Rhino (voice: Mark Walton), a fat hamster in a plastic ball who happens to be Bolt's #1 fan. Mittens figures out what's up and tries to break the news to Bolt that he's just a silly dog with a lightning bolt inked on his side. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, Penny's producers are urging her to accept a Bolt substitute and go on with the show ...
Great stories can grow from simple ideas, especially when the characterizations are as good as those in Bolt. Is it fair to suggest that Pixar producer John Lasseter's influence makes all the difference? The key to the film's success is that its characters go beyond sitcom boundaries by evolving in the course of the story. Bolt is a peculiar little dog with a one-track mind focused on eternal vigilance. Conditioned to believe that Evil Conspiracies are creeping at him from all directions, he spends his off hours on point, ready to attack whatever comes through the door of his Winnebago. Every episode of the "Bolt" TV show shows the dog beating all odds to defeat the Evil Dr. Calico (voice: Malcolm McDowell) and his cat-themed hordes of electric-fingered minions with their killer motorcycles and sinister helicopters. The exaggerated jeopardy and hyped hysteria are amusing, but we immediately prefer the tamer, friendlier atmosphere outside the show-within-a-show. Penny is weary of being rescued every week and being denied playtime with her dog, who thinks he's America's only line of defense.
A skinny black cat with one frayed ear, Mittens is a street-wise sharpie running a protection racket on New York's pigeon population. The birds are only too happy to see Mittens dragged off on a loony mission by a crazy dog. It's amusing to see the scrappy little dog genuinely surprised when he can't fly or open doors by narrowing his eyebrows and staring. Viewers with puppies of their own will recognize the doggy habit of trying to look fiercer than they are. Poor disillusioned Bolt just can't figure it out.
Mittens learns to trust others again -- we discover that she's really a softie, still wondering why her owners abandoned her. The literal ball of energy Rhino provides furry comic support as a Superfan endowed with limitless optimism. Rhino's function as Bolt's screwball Sancho Panza kicks Bolt into the company of (beware of the literary stretch here) none other than Don Quixote de la Mancha. Only with Dulcinea as a cat, see? You know, for kids!
To our surprise, the montage where Mittens teaches Bolt to Stop Worrying about Homeland Security and Learn to be a Happy Puppy works like a charm. The show resolves with the kind of magic "rightness" that we expect from Pixar and classic Disney. Even better, it doesn't tug at our pant legs for unearned sympathy. The "lessons" are good ones: don't believe everything you see on TV, don't discount the importance of loving relationships, and never give up.
Walt Disney Studios' Two-Disc Edition + Digital Copy Blu-ray release of Bolt will provide hours of entertainment for people, dogs, cats and hamsters. The nicely appointed extras forego the usual EPK fluff in favor of amusing featurettes that give us an insight into the workings of Disney Animation. The film's directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams come off as motivated, thoughtful artists who just want to make the best movie possible. The personable duo laughs as they explain especially difficult animation problems, like having to write an unexpected special program to animate the tether that binds Bolt to Mittens for a significant section of the story.
The voice talent and recording sessions are covered but the section that grabbed this reviewer addressed the film's artwork and design. Bolt's distinctive "look" is keyed to a school of classic American painting, and retains the style's visible brushwork and hazy colors. The background artists went on tour to get a feel for the different quality of light found in places like New Jersey, Ohio and California. To my surprise, the HD image allows us to see these differences as well.
Other extras include a funny Rhino cartoon, deleted scenes (in storyboard form), a music video performed by Miley Cyrus and John Travolta, games, art galleries, etc. A second disc contains a digital copy downloadable by both PC and Mac users. The third disc is a full DVD copy of the show. The BD-Live feature enables movie chats, a quiz, mail options and other marketing-oriented functions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bolt Blu-ray rates:
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the 2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.