I said it before and I'll say it again. In any other year, "Bolt" would have won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film. But "Wall-E" was so unique and charming a tale that the concept of a dog trying to save his owner seemed stale by comparison. I mean, how far is that from "What's that, Lassie? Timmy's in the well?"
Well, the concept itself may be as old as a snack-cake wedged between the couch cushions, but what first-time directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard do with it would have been a cinch to win a statue in a year when they didn't have to compete with a love-struck robot who has a blue-collar work ethic.
I'm not even talking about the animation, which is phenomenal. There are scene after scene in "Bolt" where you simply admire what the artists and animators have done, whether it's a field of prairie grass and Queen Anne's Lace or the rolling hills of California that are rendered so realistically you'd swear it was an outtake from the famous "Bullit" chase scene. No, I'm talking about taking a pretty basic concept and somehow finding ways to make it surprising along the way.
"Bolt," as everyone probably knows by now, is a TV super dog (John Travolta) who's paired with his "person," Penny (Miley Cyrus), in Bond-like adventures that have them going up against Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell), the Green-Eyed Man, and his evil cat. What's surprising, though, is how realistic that opening James Bond sequence plays out, and how, when Bolt uses his "super bark," it peels the pavement off in chunks and sends debris flying with a slick special-effects look that's worthy of the live-action "Spider-Man" trilogy. It's the juxtaposition of realistically rendered backgrounds and cartoon humans and animals that give "Bolt" an impressive visual design.
Like the hero of "The Truman Show," poor Bolt has no idea that his daily cinematic life isn't real. The director (James Lipton) takes great pains to hide boom mikes and cameras on dollies so that the dog brings a kind of urgent realism that's never before been seen on television. Unfortunately for the dog, that means being shut up like a prisoner inside his trailer after each day's shooting, rather than going home with Penny. But when the director takes some heat from the network because the 20-somethings aren't tuning in, and he tries a cliffhanger, Bolt escapes, thinking it urgent that he rescue Penny from the Green-Eyed Man.
Williams co-wrote the screenplay with Dan Fogelman ("Cars"), and it has the same sort of journey across the country that leads to self-discovery. Even moreso than "Cars," this film is populated with interesting characters along the way. Like the old Disney live-action "Incredible Journey," the core group is a trio of unlikely alliance: a dog, a cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) who's taken along by Bolt as a hostage, basically, and a hero-worshipping hamster named Rhino (animator Mark Walton) who joins them in his exercise ball. The main characters have enough personality to hold everyone's interest, with some nice energy propelling this forward and plenty of snappy lines that will appeal to adults as well. There are plenty of fun details, too, which become a part of the storyline. Example? As Bolt breaks out of his trailer and sees what he thinks to be the "throne" of Dr. Calico pulling away from him, he tries to crash into a window but only bounces backwards into an open shipping box topped with Styrofoam peanuts. Cleverly, those packing peanuts are incorporated into the script as the equivalent of Kryptonite. Searching for an explanation as to why he can no longer pick up a car with his mouth, crash through brick walls with his head, super-leap, super-bark, or karate chop humans with a well-placed blow to the collarbone, Bolt decides that the Styrofoam must have weakened him. And presto!, you have both a running gag and a plot element.
The filmmakers get the same mileage out of a bird joke, with three pigeons in New York (where the box ends up) talking to Bolt like New Yorkers and displaying both a sense of street smarts and pigeon dumbness. When he returns to Hollywood, eventually, there are three pigeons again-only ones that talk tofu (so-to-speak) and display a West Coast attitude. The focus is never squarely on the main action, either, as when Bolt and his sidekicks end up having a confrontation with the law and we get as much of a sense of those characters isolated lives as we do comedy. It's that kind of narrative sleight-of-hand and attention to detail that makes "Bolt" a cut above the average animated feature. But we have seen the basic premise before, and if you strip away the garnishes and think animals instead of vehicles you can certainly see similarities to "Cars" as well.
But it works. The voice acting is superb, the characters are engaging, the journey itself is full of small surprises, the animation is among the best I've seen, the attention to detail is incredible, and there's just enough emotion to make us care. "Bolt" is rated PG for "some material" that may not be suitable for small children, but if your kids can deal with a few moments of peril and a Timmy's-in-the-well moment near the end, there's nothing here that will bother them. "Bolt" is a great family movie because it's smart enough for adults and generally innocuous enough for children.
And how does it look on 3D?
Well, the Blu-ray has a wow factor with all sorts of pop to it, but while the 3D version is very good, compared to "Cars 2" or one of the later "Toy Story" sequels it doesn't make you marvel at every turn. Don't get me wrong. I'm not at all suggesting that "Bolt 3D" is a disappointment. But "Bolt" has a lot of quick movement, and quick movement is the Kryptonite of 3D films. The eye can't keep up with both the layered depth of field and the side-to-side action. So you end up making choices, and usually that involves appreciating the backgrounds or focusing on a certain object in the frame.
The film is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and I noticed only a few instances of ghosting as a result of the MVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig disc. Kids should appreciate it, though, as colors are bright and pleasingly saturated, black levels are solid, and there's plenty of detail and 3D depth. Though the movies that Bolt makes have more reach-out-and-touch-them 3D moments than the scenes shot in "real life," it's still a very good (but not great) 3D treatment.
Of the Blu-ray, I thought that I hadn't heard a soundtrack so active, with Disney building in an almost aggressive use of the rear speakers to bring them in on virtually every scene. The result is a true surround-sound experience rather than the occasional ambient sounds that remind us the rear speakers are still connected, and we get the same experience with the English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio on the 3D release. It's practically flawless.
There's a logic behind the distribution of sound across the channels, too, as when the hamster watches television (which is off camera, since he's looking toward us but to the left), and sure enough a clear-as-a-bell television sounds from the left rear speaker. Things like that make "Bolt" one of the most full-use 5.1 transfers I've heard--a nice dynamic audio that really fills the room with a treble as robust as the bass and mid-tones that don't get lost in the shuffle. Additional audio options are English 2.0 DVS, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. French Dolby Digital 5.1 was added as an option for the 3D disc.
Though there's no commentary, the making-of features are substantial enough to get across what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish and what they thought of the final product. But since this is a family film starring Miley Cyrus (a.k.a. "Hannah Montana") let me begin by saying that the feature "In Session with John Travolta and Miley Cyrus" is a good one. It shows the two at their mics together intercut with clips from the film, but we also get to hear them talk about working together. After that, you can play their popular duet, "I Thought I Lost You," and watch them sing that together. It's a nice one-two punch for Miley fans. Make it a one-three punch, because "Act, Speak! The Voices of Bolt" shows all the voice-actors at work, including Cyrus, with more interviews and clips strung together.
If you were as wowed by the realistic backgrounds as I was, you'll enjoy "Creating the World of Bolt," about the production design. And John Lasseter weighs in on his two first-time directors (who do most of the talking) in "A New Breed of Directors: A Filmmakers' Journey." If "Bolt" is any indication, these two "Grand Young Men" are going to be good for a long, long time.
Rhino fans will delight in "Super Rhino," a cartoon short that's also included--and which features Rhino's fantasy of being Hannah Montana, as well as a Bond-style hero. Two fairly long storyboarded (some color) deleted scenes are included with directors' introductions.
All of the above are included on both the Blu-ray and DVD. But the Blu-ray has a few exclusives, too. Most conspicuous is a video-game style "Bolt's Be-Awesome Mission," a three-level game that has players use their keys to make Bolt run left, right, jump, fire laser eyebolts, use his superbark, karate chop people, and unleash the hamster! You collect clues, maintain power levels to keep going, and avoid villains and fire to try to make it past the first "burning warehouse" level. I couldn't do it. Neither could my Nintendo-DS-playing son. Good luck to the rest of you! The other main Blu-ray exclusive is a really extensive art gallery that includes storyboards, character mock-ups, etc., arranged in sections on Visual Development, Character Development, Storyboard Art, and Color Script Images.
But for many fans the biggest bonus features will be the Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Copy included in this combo pack.
"Bolt" is an Oscar-worthy animated film that would have won if "Wall-E" weren't in the mix. It has everything you want from an animated film: great artwork, animation, characters, details, story, action, humor, and heart. It looks superb on Blu-ray and very good on 3D. The only thing that keeps this film from being a 10 is the concept itself, which all the Timmys out there have seen before.