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Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment // PG // March 22, 2009
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 22, 2009 | E-mail the Author
Bolt! This
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family pup of a big-brained scientist had his genes spliced and diced, so whenever Dr. Calico -- the sort of nefarious badnik who'd be twirling his moustache if he had one -- comes sniffing around, Bolt is able to whip out one of his dazzling array of superpowers to keep his tweeny best friend Penny out of harm's way. Even Krypto the Superdog would be kinda jealous; we're talkin' invulnerability, laser vision, superspeed, superstrength, superbark, and super...well, everything. Calico can shell out for all the attack choppers, electrified minions, and overstuffed tanks he wants, but Bolt's not gonna let the green-eyed man get in the same zip code as his pal Penny.

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 is
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also lugging around a killer sense of humor. Bolt's the straightlaced hero type, and even though he's not mugging for laughs, his confusion about not being able to blast jade green laserbeams from his eyes or bend steel serves up a steady stream of laughs early on. The tongue-in-cheek action riffs from Bolt's TV show are deliriously over-the-top, looking more like Michael Bay with a $220 million check in his hand than something ABC would air on Thursdays at 8 / 7 central. The colossal scale of those scenes eclipses pretty much every blockbuster from this past summer, and even though they're unrestrained parodies, those oversized action setpieces still manage to sincerely get the pulse racing. It's as if someone on a Red Bull and Charleston Chew bender watched The Incredibles, The Bourne Identity, and one of the more out-there Bond flicks, cranked the best parts way past 11, and this is what squirted out. Bolt manages to keep hitting those action beats -- even if they're not so much with the missile-toting Apache helicopters -- when the TV show's cameras aren't rolling too. Oh, but the biggest laughs come courtesy of Rhino the Hamster Fanboy. Too many comic sidekicks these days come across as overcalculated comedy by committee, but Rhino's wide-eyed giddiness feels so much more natural. Even though he's just a couple of inches tall and spends virtually the entire flick zipping around in a plastic ball, Rhino still manages to grab every last scene he's in and run away with 'em.

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 is absolutely jaw-dropping in 1080p. 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. The level of clarity and fine detail are both astonishing, and I felt as if I could count each and every distinct hair on Mittens, Rhino, and Bolt's hides. The movie's bold palette and stylized visuals translate beautifully to high definition; 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. As challenging as the visuals can be at times, the hefty bitrate of this AVC encode ensures that the compression never once sputters or stutters. This Blu-ray disc is absolute perfection.
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Bolt is framed around the star of a Bourne-meets-Bond hyperbudgeted action TV series, and this 24-bit, 6.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track 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. Every last element in this lossless soundtrack is rendered cleanly and clearly, veering away from any clipping and never letting the dialogue getting overwhelmed in the mix. It's a five star effort all the way.

A Dolby Digital 5.1 dub in Spanish is also included along with English (SDH) and Spanish subtitles.
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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 additional footage, an art gallery, and a Java-based game are about it.
  • Super Rhino (4 min., HD): Audible gasp! No "Tokyo Mater"? It's kind of a drag that the Pixar short that played behind Bolt in RealD didn't claw its way onto this Blu-ray disc, but "Super Rhino" is pretty terrific too. When Bolt and Penny are kidnapped, the superdog's pint-sized sidekick is infused with his own set of powers to mount a one-hamster siege on Calico's hyperfortified stronghold. It may only clock in at four minutes and change, but the superdestructive, cacklingly over-the-top scale of "Super Rhino" is right up there with Bolt's Bourne-meets-Bond-ish TV show, and there's a pretty great riff on Disney at the end.

  • Deleted Scenes (7 min., HD): Nicked from the roughly sketched story reel, there are two alternate versions of Bolt cluing in that he's not so super after all: once while squaring off (kinda darkly and viciously!) against a couple of other dogs in Vegas and another after fishing Rhino out of a raging river. Directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard offer brief introductions to each scene in high-def.
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  • A New Breed of Directors: The Filmmakers' Journey (4 min., HD): The first of several featurettes zips through Chris Williams and Byron Howard diving headfirst into the deep-end of the pool to helm their first animated flick. This really short clip touches on their distinct but overlapping roles in directing Bolt, some of the specific hurdles they had to overcome during its tight production schedule, and relieving some of the stress through communal beard growing and oversized hamster balls. It's brief and breezy but still worth a look.

  • Act, Speak! The Voices of Bolt (10 min., HD): This reasonably comprehensive peek at Bolt's voicework tears through the casting and recording. Other highlights include a few scattered notes about how the voice acting impacted the animation style as well as footage of Mark Walton as he was surprised with the news that he'd be tackling the voice of Rhino.

  • Creating the World of Bolt (7 min., HD): The last of Bolt's featurettes takes a look at its really dazzling visual style, from the brush strokes and painterly texture in its backgrounds to the skewed contrast of its megabudget show-within-a-show. There's also a look at how a breakneck cross-country road trip for reference influenced the lighting as Bolt and company plow their way to Tinseltown.

  • "I Thought I Lost You" (3 min., HD): A really quick "In Session" behind-the-scenes piece -- clocking in right at a minute in length -- breezes through John Travolta and Miley Cyrus recording the duet that plays over Bolt's end credits. The full music video, also in high definition, is tacked on here too.

  • Bolt's Be-Awesome Mission (HD): Hey, Penny's gotten pinched...again! "Bolt's Be-Awesome Mission" lets players take the reins as the superdog to plow through three single-screen boards: a burning warehouse, Calico's flying fortress, and his green eye-land. Bolt has to square off against a half-battalion of flunkies and -- shudder! -- Calico himself in an oversized tank with nothing but laser vision, a superbark, and a hamster-in-a-plastic-ball to back him up. Oddly enough, the first board is the only remotely challenging one of the three, and it's kind of disappointing that there's nothing but a "congrats!" voiceover once you've plowed through 'em all.
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  • Bolt Art Gallery: A sprawling still gallery -- with some shots in high-res and others not so much -- piles together conceptual sketches showing how enormously these characters transformed over time, storyboards, rough-hewn paintings from a color script, and -- heck, why not? -- entire pages of waffle-men.

  • DVD and Digital Copy: Disney's keen on the idea of people who shell out for one of their day-and-dates on Blu-ray being able to watch it on just about any device imaginable. A second disc in the set serves up the movie on DVD, and a third piles on a digital copy for use on iPods, Macs, PCs, and Windows Media-powered devices.

  • Trailers (HD): The usual gaggle of high-def plugs and promos rounds out the extras.

Bolt comes packaged in a thick blue keepcase that slides into a glossy, embossed cardboard sleeve.

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.
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