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2008 was a good year for major release animation. First DreamWorks scored with Kung Fu Panda, their first genuinely great animated film, and a surprisingly adept take on character. Then Pixar scored with Wall-E, and experimental masterpiece that will likely go down as one of the studio’s finest storytelling achievements. After a lesser, but also enjoyable second release from Dreamworks ( Madagascar 2) the ball was left in Disney’s court. Disney’s spot in the competition is often forgotten because of their attachment to Pixar, and now that Pixar co-founder John Lasseter is in charge of several aspects of the animation department at Disney proper, the difference between the studios is even more negligible. Anyway, it was Disney’s turn to score, and they threw up an unlikely Hail Mary with Bolt—the story of a television dog convinced that his Hollywood world is the real thing, and that his owner is in genuine danger.

Bolt
Bolt runs on a pretty traditional storyline which borrows several plot points from well known movies, and just like Kung Fu Panda this familiarity is the film’s only major problem. This review marks the third talking dog movie I’ve checked out for Disney in just over a month’s time, and all three have used the Incredible Journey’s talking animal plot element of a humanized group of animals on a long distance trip home. In the case of Bolt non- Incredible Journey elements are mostly swiped from The Truman Show, Toy Story, and Toy Story 2, in that order. Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is introduced as a Truman-esque character who doesn’t know his life is a TV show. This moves the plot quickly to Buzz Lightyear territory, when the true believer dog is introduced to the real world where he finds out he isn’t super powered, or worse, even particularly important. The Toy Story 2 bit comes in when Bolt realizes he may have to reserve himself to being a regular dog, which is comparable to Woody’s choice between accepting his love for his ‘boy’ and the repercussions that will likely bring.

But the amount of plot that’s covered in the film’s relatively short ninety-six minutes is quite admirable. Bolt himself has a character arc that most dramatic actors would kill for, and though his progression is a little easier than it would be for a real world character, it’s buyable within the film’s universe, which tests your suspension of disbelief immediately by introducing a world where a studio would be willing to spend millions of extra dollars to keep the dog convinced that his heroics are real. If you’re willing to go with that bit (and the fact that the animals are talking, which really shouldn’t be a problem), the rest of the contrivances are pretty easy to accept.

Bolt
The montage section at the heart of the film, where Mittens the cat teaches Bolt the joys of being a regular dog, is a simple and obvious way of setting up the dominos that will lead to the inevitable happy ending, and is simply and obviously absurd, a lynchpin of lazy comedy, but it’s also one of the more touching scenes I’ve seen out of a Disney animated movie in quite some time. The section also goes back to more classic studio animation, which was more concerned with the intricacies of character than overall plot. At the same time the ‘cuter’ scenes don’t feel like tack-ons, and the film’s overall tone is pleasantly breezy without seeming insipid, or crudely drawn. Even the prototypical comedy sidekick, who’s given relatively little character development is a reasonably integral part of the script, and isn’t entirely extraneous.

Video


Bolt’s character animation is mostly your standard computer animated look, featuring soft fur, clean lines, and a semi plasticine skin look. It’s not a boring look, because the character designers have creating interesting looking creations, but it’s pretty typical. The backgrounds, on the other hand, are impressionistic, and exact a painted look. These background, which rest somewhere between realistic and traditional Americana oil paintings. In high definition the difference between the two styles is a little more obvious, but this is one of the few cases where this isn’t a bad thing. The mixed style gives the film its own feel. The hi-def video also features much brighter colours than the standard definition release.

Bolt
The majority of the film is pretty soft, but not lacking in detail. Single hairs and grains of sand are discernable, and Rhino the hamster is so tangibly soft you want to reach out and touch him. The depth of field is mostly broad, and the contrast levels are pretty subtle. In comparison the scene from Bolt’s TV show, which the filmmakers tried to make look like a Michael Bay film. Details are slightly heightened, contrast is sharper, featuring thick blacks, and the focus becomes slightly more stylized. These scenes are slightly more reference quality mainly due to the increased contrast, but the rest of the film is by no means unworthy of your set’s time. Check out the distortion effect created by Rhino’s crawling ball. Effectively this is a perfect direct digital transfer.

Audio


Both the audio and video aspects of Bolt feature real world and film world differentiations. The scene that takes place in the pretend world of the Bolt TV series is aurally comparable to the biggest Jerry Bruckheimer production in scale, scope, bass levels, surround dexterity, and fine detail. This particular sequence will likely make for fine display model sampling at your local Best Buy in the near future. The other action scenes, which take place in the real world, are equally impressive, though a little less over-stylized. The music is also different between the film’s two worlds, but it’s not as severe a difference. The TV world features more electronic symphonic work, overloaded with brass and bass, while the real world is more scene appropriate score, including jazz, traditional Sicilian (usually used for Mittens), whimsical, Randy Newman-esque stuff, and your basic adventure stuff. The music rarely lets up the entire film, and is an impressive showing for composer John Powell.

Bolt

Extras


The extras begin with a new animated short called Super Rhino. This particular short is adorable, features some pretty major production design, and an impressive Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, but it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. The short, which runs four and a half minutes, mostly just replays some of the Bolt the super dog gags with Rhino the hamster in his place.

There are two deleted scenes, each with introductions by directors Chris Williams and Bryon Howard. The first scene is a dog fight over food in Vegas, in which Bolt, still thinking he has super powers is nearly killed. It’s presented in storyboard form, but gives a very good feel as to the impressionistic tone intended. The second scene also features an alternate version of Bolt realizing he wasn’t a super dog. The storyboards are a little rougher for this scene, but the sound design is still strangely impressive.

‘In Session with John Travolta and Miley Cyrus’ is a brief behind the scenes look at the recording and production of ‘I Thought I Lost You’, which is directly followed by a video for the song. It’s a very Miley Cyrus song that I’m assuming Travolta’s bigger fans aren’t going to be too impressed with.

‘Bolt’s Be-Awesome Mission Game’ is a little Blu-ray game with an incredibly long introduction. Like the surprisingly fun games that accompanied the Wall-E disc, this is a throw-back to ‘80s era side-scrollers. The controls are awkward, and the timing is frustrating.

Bolt
‘A New Breed of Directors: The Filmmaker’s Journey’ is a poppy look at the film’s making-of process, with a specified focus on dual directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard. Among the fast paced factoids are a few genuine gems, but at only four and a half minutes, there simply isn’t enough time to get the good stuff out. We learn about some backstage shenanigans, and a few technical facts about the animation. It does appear that John Lassatter had more to do with the production than initially assumed.

‘Act, Speak! The Voices of Bolt’ is another relatively informative, but overall fluffy little featurette. The directors, producers, animators, and actors talk about the lead voice actors Miley Cyrus (Penny), John Travolta (Bolt), Susie Essman (Mittens), Mark Walton (Rhino), and James Lipton (Director). It’s a bit of a butt-kissathon, and I wish more of the cast was covered, but it’s a fun enough time, running under ten minutes.

‘Creating the World of Bolt’ is a look at the production design and art direction of the film. As stated in the Video section of my review, the painterly backgrounds are a fine touch, and something that puts the film in an original artistic realm for a CG movie. The original tests are included, as are examples of the more obvious and impressive examples of the painted look. The seven minute featurette also briefly covers a road trip some of the designers took to gather photo reference, and the photos are included for reference.

Things are completed with a series of art galleries (character design, colour script, storyboards, visual development), and trailers for other Disney releases. The set also includes a DVD copy of the film, and a Digital Copy disc.

Bolt

Overall


Bolt, like Kung Fu Panda, is a pleasant surprise from an animation studio some animation fans had mostly given up on. It’s not a stroke of brilliance, as seen out of Pixar lately ( Cars not withstanding), but it’s smart enough, and breezily entertaining. This Blu-ray release features reference level audio and video that runs an impressive gambit, including the subtle and the extreme, though the extras are pretty weak and fluffy. A highly recommended rental.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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