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A "Bolt" Out of the Blu(-ray) Is a Surprising Delight

by on April 2, 2009

Disney’s Bolt feels like a mish-mash of several other movies, lifting bits and pieces from spy thrillers, superhero comic book action epics, road-trip buddy flicks, and funny talking animal comedies. While it may not really add much new or original to those genres, or even combine them in a terribly creative fashion, it is still a tremendously enjoyable and charming movie, and a definite step up from other more recent movies from the Disney Animation Studios.

Fetch! Good boy!Bolt the dog (voiced by John Travolta) is the star of his eponymous TV show, where he uses his canine super powers to protect his owner Penny (Miley Cyrus) against the wiles of the Green-Eyed Man (Malcolm McDowell). The movie begins with an excerpt from the Bolt TV show, which pulls off the Hot Fuzz trick of parodying a movie genre by executing all the old clichés exceptionally well by turning everything up to 11. This action-sequence head-fake is so well done that it actually undermines the movie in a few ways, since it’s easy to be a bit disappointed when one realizes that it isn’t the movie we’re ultimately going to get. It also has the unfortunate effect of making the title character cross over from “dense” to “stupid,” since the movie’s gimmick is that Bolt thinks everything that happens on the TV show is real, from his laser vision to a super bark that rates at least a 5.9 on the Richter scale. When he mistakes a TV kidnapping for the real thing, he breaks free from the studio to rescue Penny. A sequence of mishaps leads him to be shipped across the country to New York City, far away from anything and anyone he knows. He’s soon on the long road back to Los Angeles and Penny, with the reluctant assistance of a sarcastic, street-smart cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) and an over-eager couch-potato hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton), who also turns out to be the world’s biggest Bolt fanboy.

Bolt is rather similar to Cars, in that we pretty much know exactly where this road is leading almost from the start. There are “where are we going?” movies and “how are we getting there?” movies, and Bolt is solidly the latter. The bulk of the movie is an extended road trip with Bolt, Mittens, and Rhino as they all learn to rely on each other and face their own fears and shortcomings. Of course, Bolt comes to confront his own delusions, and to the movie’s credit, it doesn’t just recycle the same elements that drove Buzz Lightyear’s moment of clarity in Toy Story. Indeed, it is only through exceptionally high-quality filmmaking that Bolt and his friends ingratiate themseles into our good graces in a surprisingly quiet and subtle way. We grow to love and care for Bolt and his friends rather deeply, which is exactly why several second- and third-act revelations are such powerful emotional gut-punches. Sure, it’s shamelessly manipulative and the final act climax is more than a little cheesy, but in the end it is exceptionally easy to laugh and even cry along with the characters. It’s also worth pointing out that Bolt may have celebrities in major roles, but unlike a DreamWorks film, the celebrity stunt casting never overwhelms the movie itself. Travolta is endlessly charming as Bolt, while Essman lends Mittens an icily dry wit, and Cyrus manages to pull off both her fake on-screen role and her real one with aplomb.

Bolt, Mittens, and RhinoOn a technical level, Bolt is marvelous. Bolt can easily hold his head high amongst the pantheon of Disney’s most famous animated canines like Lady and the Tramp, or Pongo and Perdita. Despite his exaggerated features, he is a completely believable dog from his adorable puppy antics that kick off the movie to a tremendously amusing scene where he learns how to beg for food to his stubborn (dare I say “dogged”?) determination in the movie’s climactic scene. In fact, he’s believable enough that my dog barks at the TV when Bolt is on, acting the same way he does when real dogs are on screen. His tremendous emotional appeal is set in front of a beautifully rendered and realized world that apparently mixes up CGI and good old-fashioned painting for the beautiful panoramic backgrounds. Indeed, one of the most beautiful parts of the movie is the road-trip montage in the middle of the film, which begins somewhere in Ohio, wanders through the sun-dappled heartland, and ends in a stunningly realized Las Vegas. And it must be said again that the fake action sequence that begins the movie is a small masterpiece, nailing exactly the right beats and even mimicking the slightly grainy, muted color palette of the recent Jason Bourne movies.

Like many companies, Disney is still experimenting with the brave new world of media, where DVD may dominate, but multiple other video formats are also jockeying for position. Thus, Bolt has been released in three different (and slightly confusing) editions: a plain single-disc DVD, which contains only the movie and an amusing new short film “Super Rhino;” a 2-disc edition, which adds making-of material and a Digital Copy of the movie; and a Blu-ray edition, which puts the movie and all the special features on a single Blu-ray disc and adds in the complete 2-disc DVD for good measure. The Blu-ray is marvelous, showcasing Bolt’s excellent CGI animation work beautifully. The road trip sequences are especially lush and beautiful, bringing out rich nuances of color and detail. The gorgeous visuals are paired with an impressively detailed 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack that is most impressive in the high-octane action sequence that kicks off the movie.

Hello, Destiny? I've been waiting for your call.There may not be very many extras on the Bolt home video releases, but they are all exceptionally well done. “Super Rhino” is a hilarious delight that sees what happens when the hyperactive hamster gets Bolt’s super powers. The “making of” featurettes are all rather short, with the longest running just 10 minutes and the shortest running less than half of that, but they are quite thorough and focused. The best one is probably “Act, Speak! The Voices of Bolt,” if only for the reaction shot of Mark Walton when he found out he was the voice of Rhino; unsurprisingly, this is also the longest of the shorts. Running a very close second is “Creating the World of Bolt,” which focuses on the art and the animation of Bolt. “A New Breed of Directors: The Filmmakers’ Journey” is relatively lightweight, but also rather short and entertaining if only for the look at how animators relieve the stress that comes with a tight production schedule. A music video of the John Travolta/Miley Cyrus song “I Thought I Lost You” is accompanied by a short making-of video; the song is decent enough over the closing credits, but I can’t say I found its production to be as interesting as the other featurettes. We also get a deleted scenes reel, most of which is in storyboard to animatic form, which is mostly interesting for the look at the road not taken, which really would have led to a more derivative and less interesting movie. Finally, the Blu-ray comes with an exclusive game “Bolt’s Be-Awesome Mission,” mostly of interest to the kiddies.

It’s an open question why Bolt was so under-recognized last year at the box office, but it certainly had little to do with the quality of the movie. While it is not exactly the most original animated movie to come out of the Disney Animation Studios, it’s at least on par with Kung Fu Panda, and if it’s not as daring as WALL-E, it is still wonderfully charming and surprisingly effective at tugging at our heartstrings. Bolt is an entertaining trifle and an extremely positive sign for another revival of the Disney Animation Studios, and hopefully it will find a wider audience on home video.

All images © Disney. All Rights Reserved.

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