If the dog believes it, Judge Dan Mancini believes it.
Fully awesome. Ridonculous. Let it begin.
Released in the winter of 2008, Walt Disney Animation Studio's first computer animated feature was mostly overlooked in the residual glare of unmitigated awesomeness that was still emanating from the summer release of Pixar's WALL-E. The movie did well at the box office, but it didn't exactly break records. It's too bad, really, because Bolt is a beautifully animated film with a charming adventure story and plenty of Disney heart.
Facts of the Case
Rescued from an animal shelter as a pup by a little girl named Penny (Miley Cyrus, Hannah Montana), Bolt (John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever) grows up to be the star of a television series in which he plays a super-powered pooch who foils the schemes of the nefarious Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange). In the name of verisimilitude, Bolt's director (James Lipton, Inside the Actors Studio) ensures that his star doesn't know the difference between reality and events in the show. When Bolt comes to believe that Penny was kidnapped by Calico, he escapes from his trailer and, through an unfortunate and absurd series of events, is shipped from Hollywood to New York. Unaware that he has no super strength, laser beam eyes, or super bark, Bolt sets out on a mission to rescue his person from his arch-nemesis. Along the way, he befriends a surly alley cat named Mittens (Susie Essman, Curb Your Enthusiasm) and meets his biggest fan, a rotund, enthusiastic, TV-addicted hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton, Chicken Little). During his quest for Penny, Bolt learns the value of friendship and how to be a normal dog.
Bolt kicks off with an action-packed credits sequence from the titular dog's ersatz television series that brilliantly evokes explosion-filled Michael Bay flicks, the physics-defying Mission: Impossible trilogy, and even Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies. For adults, much of Bolt's charm rests in its smart deconstruction of entertainment clichés. Bolt's cloistered cluelessness about the real world into which he is thrust (he's so pampered that he doesn't even know his growling stomach means he's hungry) is a reflection of the absurd artificiality of Hollywood escapist entertainment. The movie goes so far as to have chubby hamster Rhino, a television savant, point out turns of its own plot even as they occur. If Disney animated films tend to follow a particular three-act structure (they do), then Rhino (like the rest of us) has been there and seen that. This self-reflexive, deconstructive approach may sound too cute by half, but worry not: There is more than enough earnest, heartwarming moral to Bolt's story to temper its postmodern tomfoolery. Its inside baseball entertainment industry gags don't provoke groans of discomfort because they aren't rooted in current pop culture fads the way they are in, say, the Shrek movies.
The movie also makes hay gently needling American culture from coast to coast. There are jokes at the expense of New Yorkers, Ohio trailer park residents, Las Vegas glitz, and vapid Hollywood types. All of the humor is in good fun, none of it mean-spirited. A particularly funny running gag involves Bolt, Mittens, and Rhino's regular encounters with pigeons that have regionally appropriate accents and attitudes—the New York pigeons are coarse, street-wise, and pay protection money (in the form of scrounged food) to Mittens; the Hollywood pigeons are pushy fast-talkers who pitch a script idea to Bolt. Much of this humor will fly over the heads of young audience members, but there's plenty of slapstick and punnery to make them laugh, too.
Bolt is a perfect protagonist for an audience of tykes—and not just because he's a cute little pup. Like very young children, he is simultaneously an innocent and a narcissist. He believes that things in the real world operate the way they do on TV, and that everyone he encounters is merely an enemy or an ally in his quest to reunite with Penny—either way, they're bit players in his story. There isn't a doubt in the little dog's mind that he's the star of not just his own life but of everyone else's, too. That trait could have been irritating to audiences but, superpowers or no, the pooch demonstrates a likeable, even admirable, courage and pluckiness that makes him a compelling action hero despite his cluelessness. Playing against type, John Travolta is excellent in the role. He delivers a perfect mix of naïveté and superheroic self-assurance. Most important, despite Travolta's stardom, I didn't find myself thinking of him whenever the dog opened his mouth. Travolta plays well off of his compadres. Susie Essman proves she can be funny even when she's not cursing a blue streak at Larry David and Jeff Garlin. Animator Mark Walton steals the show as the nerdy but enthusiastic Rhino. The duo is perfect sidekicks for Bolt—Rhino's clueless ebullience and Mittens' world-weary cynicism emphasize the little dog's character by way of comparison and contrast. We come to know Bolt as much by the company he keeps as by his own actions. Miley Cyrus's part is small, but she's believable as child star Penny. Cameos by Malcolm McDowell, James Lipton, Diedrich Bader (Office Space), Greg Germann (Ally McBeal), and professional wrestler Randy "Macho Man" Savage give the flick texture without reducing it to a self-aware showcase of recognizable voices.
Produced by longtime Pixar head honcho John Lasseter, Bolt has more in common with that studio's output than with traditional Disney 2D animated features. It's an exciting, non-musical adventure built on emotionally compelling characters, universal themes, and stunningly detailed animation. Bolt isn't as good as top-shelf Pixar (it certainly doesn't compare with WALL-E, easily Pixar's most accomplished film to date), but it stands shoulder to shoulder with more middling efforts like Monsters, Inc. or A Bug's Life. Kids will love it and their parents will have a good time, too.
I don't think I exaggerate when I say that the video transfer is perfect. The filmmakers primarily looked to realist paintings for inspiration, emphasizing tonal accuracy over deep focus detail. The results are stunning. Textures are rich, while the lighting is varied, beautiful and spot-on perfect for each of the radically different locales through which our team of heroes travels. The 16:9 1080p transfer handles every detail, every shade of color, every black, gray, and white with aplomb. Put simply, the image looks perfect—or close enough to perfection that my eye can't find a flaw. The audio is equally impressive. Perfectly imaged to use the entire soundstage, the DTS-HD lossless master audio track is crisp and clear, delivering subtle detail as well as bombast. Bolt isn't a consistently loud movie, but it's loud when it needs to be, while delivering a maximum of clarity during quieter moments.
Disc One of this three-disc set is a dual-layered 50-gigabyte Blu-ray disc that contains the feature and some bonuses. Bolt's slate of extras isn't as exhaustive as those for Disney's line of Platinum Edition releases of its catalog titles, but it's still decent. "Super Rhino" (4:27) is a short animated film featuring a souped-up Rhino the hamster springing into action to save Bolt and Penny from the evil Calico. Honestly, the short feels like an afterthought. It isn't much more than a loosely connected series of jokes parodying the main feature. There are two deleted scenes: "Dog Fight in Vegas" and "River Sequence." The scenes are accompanied by introductions by directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard, which are essential to understanding where the scenes fit into the movie and why they were cut (both involve Bolt's discovery that he doesn't have super powers). The scenes are unfinished story reel versions that run a total of six minutes and 37 seconds (including the intros). "Bolt's Be-Awesome Game" is a remote-control-based game that is mostly entertaining because of Rhino's enthusiastic voice-over. Let's just say that gameplay isn't exactly dazzling. "Bolt Art Galleries" contains four separate sections of images—"Character Design," "Color Script," "Storyboard Art," and "Visual Development"—that each lead to page after page of tiled thumbnails that can be selected in order to view individual images more closely. A Play All option allows you to scroll through the images from each of the galleries one at a time.
There are also four production featurettes. "In Session with John Travolta and Miley Cyrus" is a 59-second snippet about recording the stars' duet, "I Thought I Lost You" (the song plays over the end credits). A music video for the tune is also included. "A New Breed of Directors: The Filmmakers' Journey" (4:34) is an introduction to first-time directors Williams and Howard. "Act, Speak! The Voices of Bolt" (9:48) introduces us to the movie's voice actors and gives us a glimpse of the recording sessions. "Creating the World of Bolt" (6:45) is about the movie's animation and art direction.
In addition to the bonus material, there's also a healthy collection of sneak previews for current and upcoming Disney releases, including the soon-to-be-released Blu-ray editions of Monsters, Inc., Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, and the Platinum Edition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the upcoming 2D animated theatrical feature The Princess and the Frog, and a promo for the Disney XD high definition channel.
All of the supplements and sneak peeks are presented in full 1080p high definition, framed at 1.78:1. The disc is also BD-Live enabled, though no features were yet available at the time of this writing.
Disc Two is a DVD that contains Bolt and all of the supplements listed above. Disney's habit of including DVD copies in their major Blu-ray releases is absolutely brilliant (and much appreciated by parents, I can assure you), considering many of the House of Mouse's target audience members watch these flicks on high definition gear at home as well as on tiny LCDs while strapped into child safety harnesses in the backseats of mini-vans. Tossing a DVD into the Blu-ray case is a smart way of ensuring that Disney consumers don't take a pass on high-def glory in favor of low-def portability. It's also a great opportunity for Disney fans who haven't yet upgraded to high definition to future-proof their collections.
Disc Three of the set contains a downloadable digital copy of the feature.
Disney proves once again they do Blu better than anyone else in the business. Bolt sports a reference quality transfer, sparkling audio, and a decent slate of extras. The inclusion of a fully loaded DVD version of the movie makes this Blu-ray edition the preferred choice even for Disney fans who haven't yet upgraded to high definition.
Even more important than the disc's dazzling technical quality, Bolt itself is fun for the whole family.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
• Animated Short
Review content copyright © 2009 Dan Mancini; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.