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Bolt

Walt Disney Animation Studios (November 21 2008), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (March 22 2009), single Blu-ray Disc + one DVD + Digital Copy disc, 96 mins plus supplements, 1080p high definition and 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby Digital Surround, Rated PG, Retail: $39.99

Storyboard:

The star of a hit animal action adventure series, Bolt, finds himself a real life underdog when a location break-out goes wrong and he’s left to fend for himself in the real world, without any of the super powers his possesses on his show.

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The Sweatbox Review:

Until the Academy Awards nominations were announced earlier this year, absolutely no-one expected Disney’s something of a return to form, Bolt, to feature that strongly in the three available slots. The general widespread thinking was that Pixar’s WALL-E had it in the bag, that DreamWorks’ surprisingly layered Kung Fu Panda could bring along some strong competition, and that the animated documentary Waltz With Bashir or Blue Sky’s Horton Hears A Who! could cause an outside chance of upsetting the odds. In the final eventuality, Horton proved to be released too early for anyone to remember and Bashir waltzed off into the Foreign Language category, that final spot leapt into on all fours by Disney’s latest canine star. Despite polite reviews and generally decent box office, Bolt hadn’t exactly set Disney’s shares soaring, and an Oscar nomination just wasn’t on the cards. No-one was expecting that!

Of course, Bolt’s nomination comes as an extra surprise when one factors in the production’s history, which famously started out as director Chris Sanders’ follow up to his blockbuster smash (and later lucrative franchise for the Mouse), Lilo & Stitch. Originally called American Dog, Sanders’ basic concept was about a dog of a certain ability who gets lost in the real world and has to find his way home, while nefarious forces conspire against that goal. Those that saw the original artwork saw a completely new kind of feature threatening to emerge from Walt Disney Feature Animation: on of innate beauty and absurd quirkiness. But by most accounts (or at least the officially Studio sanctioned one), the unique visuals couldn’t hold up the not so interesting story, though I like to think that the story was just as out there as the look. Whatever the situation, when Disney merged with Pixar and The Lamp’s head honcho John Lasseter didn’t like what he saw (maybe it was all too original?), Sanders was out and a pair of rookie directors (Chris Williams and Byron Howard) were in.

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A couple of name changes (the Studio unit to Walt Disney Animation Studios, the movie to Hollywood Dog) later, and the production was underway again, now about a German Shepherd acting pooch who gets lost on location and has to find his way home. As per Pixar tradition, Sanders’ creepy villains were also dropped, the movie now carrying the message that if you believe in yourself, you can do anything. Comparisons to Disney’s own direct to video outing 101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure were perhaps unfair, but they weren’t unfounded either. The reworked movie’s plot sounded like it shared several similarities, from the German Shepherd star, Thunderbolt, who thinks his movie set life is the real deal, to having to draw on his real strength to fight back – points that became all the more convincing when the new film was retitled again…to Bolt!

As if this wasn’t enough, while all this was going on, a resurgence in canine starring movies saw the same plot play out in everything from Disney’s own foray into Indian animation, Roadside Romeo, to another of the Studio’s own, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, which eventually opened in the same box office frame as Bolt. But this much derided little movie was about to bite back: not only did Bolt open stronger than expected, but it had legs, performing above average and gaining favorable reviews. Bolt was a better than moderate success and, generally speaking, The Mouse was rewarded with one of its strongest animated performances in years and validated placing its trust into Lasseter’s hands.

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Quite if Sanders’ American Dog would have performed as well, or better, than Bolt is a question to ponder forevermore: both films are as far from each other as they could get, and all we have is the evidence that Bolt has signalled a return to form for Mickey’s outfit, as confirmed by the animation industry itself with the film’s somewhat surprise Oscar nomination. Sanders’ name is long gone, replaced by Executive Producer Lasseter, still the only production executive that seems to take a credit on these films nowadays: even Jeffrey Katzenberg gave up that trick once DreamWorks took off. But at the end of the day…was all the tinkering, tampering and transforming worth it?

I ended up missing Bolt in theaters (actually I ended up seeing Beverly Hills Chihuahua instead…go figure!) and by the time the home video release was announced I reasoned that I may as well wait for the inevitable Blu-ray. With all the kudos and good words that had built up by the time of Bolt’s disc release, I was more than anticipating a good time, and the opening certainly delivers: I had a huge grin on my face all through these initial scenes, which set up Bolt as the supercanine hero in his own Hollywood world. After a pre-title prologue in which we meet young pup Bolt and we see him adopted by a young girl, Penny, we’re then shifted five years later and literally dropped right into the mystery and action as Penny’s scientist dad calls his daughter to advise her he’s in trouble. Penny sets off to help, accompanied with her now power-charged pooch Bolt, now grown up and genetically modified with an arsenal of abilities.

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Of course this is all make believe set up for the hyperactive TV show where Bolt is the star, and it’s all played as delightful pastiche, from the over the top narration (“You won’t be alone…you have Bolt. I’ve altered him…”) to John Powell’s triumphant, brassy score motif that roars up when Bolt’s transformation and tag become the flashy instigators for the tongue in cheek main title logo. After this, we’re treated to a wonderfully histrionic sequence that could blow the doors off any in the Jerry Bruckheimer tradition (an ambition later confirmed by the directors in the supplements), full of high-tech gadgetry, threatening British-accented villains and black-suited, black SUV driving bad guys, and feats of super strength from our hero including a high-speed city street chase, daring leaps and rescues, laser eye vision and a mighty powerful bark, all presented with typical electronic musical scoring, elaborate camera moves, slow-motion shots and multiple angles of the same explosion, the likes of which you’d have expected to have been directed by Michael Bay!

Unfortunately, this high intensity can’t be kept up for another 90 minutes, of course, and the rest of Bolt simply fails to make much of an impact. With the action cut short by a stray boom mic being caught in shot – something that could ruin the illusion for the show’s star actor, Bolt himself, who thinks this is all real (this being another one of those “millions of hidden cameras” capturing the action type deals, but we’ll let that slip) – Bolt slides into a sub-Pixar mold that doesn’t play to all its strengths. The basic plotting doesn’t actually fall into place as it should, Penny herself being an enigmatic character that has to be one thing for Bolt and the plot to work as best it can, and another thing for the audience, the result being that we’re never quite sure who the real Penny is and why she feels the way she does.

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Her character isn’t helped by being played by Disney moppet of the moment Miley Cyrus, seemingly a late replacement in the film (she undoubtedly wasn’t attached to the American Dog concept) and probably because Christy Carlson Romano has now grown too old for such fare or because Vanessa Hudgens was too busy High School Musicaling. Certainly these current in vogue stars are as interchangeable as they come, but tween audience demographic apart Cyrus is all wrong for the part. During the otherwise exciting opening scenes, Penny’s vocals are the one thing that feel lifeless and devoid of any such involvement in what is happening, while she just sounds too old in the post-TV show moments – indeed a “replacement Penny” that comes later on in the movie is much more appealing and one can’t but help that she was cast at the last minute for being the one already on the payroll with the greatest name recognition. It’s something that doesn’t help her animation overcome the further rather bland character design, either.

As out titular hero, John Travolta is more successful, and though he too is in danger of not fitting his role like a glove, he at least brings the right kind of acting chops to the game. Travolta, whom we don’t actually hear speak until almost twenty minutes into the movie, does what he can with the script, but its clear there are no improvisational sparks flying around, and an early scene where Bolt’s co-stars mock his belief in his powers feels awfully second hand, though the digs at Hollywood, and especially a greasy talent agent, are quite fun. Other than this, the vocal highlight has to be the introduction of three New York wise-guy pigeons, though even here we’ve seen the basic same play before in Animaniacs and despite the quite brilliant animation and some of the best lines given to any of the characters in the film, it’s another element that stops Bolt from feeling like anything truly original.

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Elsewhere the animation is an odd mix of Pixar-level tone and sometimes quite embarrassing low-rent stuff. The look of the movie is sheer class, Chris Sanders’ watercolor-preferred styled backgrounds somewhat retained with a computer generated painterly approach. It mostly works but can also come over as not being one thing or the other: the visible paint strokes on objects that also feature definable textures not always meshing as best they might. I also noticed some of the background detail jumping between inconsistencies: there’s a whole sequence set in some lush greenery, but not one blade of grass or tree leaf blows in the wind. Now one might think this to be a stylistic choice, but check out other areas of green in the film and they sway as they should.

Of the characters themselves, I’m not sure if Bolt’s proportions actually work, and he does seem to keep changing size, however subtly, throughout the film. However, a more noticeable issue, and pegging the film down from the lofty levels of a Pixar outing, is the duplication of the background human models. Although even The Lamp’s productions will have to come to terms with “crowd control” or “people police” in the number of unique individuals they can create for any given scene, more often than not in Bolt, you’ll see the same old men show up time after time. These aren’t supposed to be the same guys – it’s just a limitation of the budget and, I guess, the time the rushed production was completed in – but instead of coming up with the usual variables in costume and hair design, they’re pretty much a carbon copy clones popping up time and again. You might understand or even expect this in the product of a lesser Studio: that it comes in a Disney movie overseen by Pixar’s Lasseter doesn’t do much to quash the argument that his heart is still rooted in Pixar’s world. Disney movies can be fun, or good even, but they can’t better Pixar, perhaps?

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The Pixar touch is echoed in the lack of an actual villain: once Bolt breaks free of his Hollywood confines – an actually amusing sequence where the posters on the network’s walls suggest the ones finally used in this very movie’s marketing – the TV series’ bad guy, the mysterious Green Eyed Man (deliciously overplayed appropriately by Malcolm McDowell), obviously has no place in the “real world” story…but then, it seems, neither does any other opposing force. True to Pixar form, the film becomes a road trip, full of varied characters but none of which pose any true danger or threat to Bolt’s quest to return and – he thinks – save Penny. This not only robs the film of any real character depth but a few missed opportunities: how about Bolt spotting a character that resembles the Green Eyed Man, leading him away from his goal purely unwittingly after perhaps coming so close to being reunited with Penny? Or even a rogue dog-napper who hears about Bolt’s escape and chases the pooch for a potential reward?

It just seemed to me that Bolt is happy to forgo any actual exciting or interesting plot diversions along the way, falling into the episodic trap that so many of the 1970s Disney films were (sometimes unfairly) accused of. Maybe it’s this playing safe attitude that had an effect on the scripting: much of the banter between characters is obvious and seemingly recycled, and several personalities, such as the Hollywood agent and Rhino the hamster, seem like they’ve been pulled from some old stockpile. In fact I found Rhino himself – otherwise seemingly the break out character – to be quite irritating; sometimes funny, always amusingly performed with some of the best lines, but indicative of recent Disney’s loud sidekicks in that they seem to have to shout all their dialog in an attempt to amp up their impact and comedic assets. Best of the lot is Mittens, a black cat that Bolt leashes himself to in an attempt to find Penny, who remains calm and realistic throughout, a good balance to Bolt and Rhino’s over-exuberance.

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Eventually, Bolt comes over as a patchwork mismatch of varying ideas and techniques; elements that would probably work on their own but that don’t always come together in a harmonious whole. Bolt is engaging enough, but the Best Animated Feature nomination still surprises me: maybe it was a goodwill gesture towards the newly invigorated Walt Disney Animation Studios crew? The Academy Awards love a comeback story, and Bolt’s nomination gave them that, though that it lost to WALL-E and probably came third to Kung Fu Panda is justified: however most parts of the film are entertaining it’s not anywhere near being in the same league as its nomination mates. We can only wonder what Sanders’ American Dog might have turned out like, but it wouldn’t have been this film: the two couldn’t be more further apart in tone or execution.

Though it’s slightly overlong at 96 minutes, Bolt does have its moments – a final fire rescue in the studio complex resolves our hero’s arc satisfactorily if not spectacularly – but ultimately it’s a pleasant enough diversion that merely slots itself into the growing number of computer animated comedy adventures that seem to arrive at once a month intervals. However, any film that fits in a sly swipe at why the recent Indiana Jones disappointment was so inadequate is a good’un in my book, and despite its shortcomings, Bolt comes recommended as a typical slice of slick, CG filmmaking, if nothing more.

Is This Thing Loaded?

With Disney’s “return to form” as it was widely praised in the bag, and Lasseter’s supplement loving clout, one might have expected a fairly rounded package for Bolt, so that it essentially comes with the basics and not much else is a disappointment. Available in single disc and double-disc DVD configurations, the single disc’s lone extra is a bonus short, while the two-disc set adds several featurettes to the disc and bundles in an extra Digital Copy disc. The three-disc Blu-ray combo set under discussion here included both the feature-packed DVD edition, the Digital Copy plus, of course, the high definition disc itself.

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The ubiquitous Disney spot and a series of Sneak Peeks naturally begin both the DVD and BD discs, the titles being promoted including The Princess And The Frog, Lilo & Stitch: 2-Disc Big Wave Edition, Bedtime Stories, Disney Blu-ray and Movie Rewards, with Schoolhouse Rock Earth, Snow White, The Black Cauldron, Tinker Bell And The Lost Treasure, Princess Protection Program and DisneyXD also available from their own menu selection on the DVD, plus Monsters Inc for its Blu debut. Menus for both editions are similar, though one can’t but help if someone is on a mission to rub Bolt’s Disney ownership into Sanders face: the menu suspiciously uses the new version of a much-seen concept clip from the original American Dog project.

On the DVD: the big bonus for both formats is the new, made for video short Super Rhino, essentially a throwaway joke – what would happen if Bolt’s hamster friend had gained super powers – that actually turns out to be a lot of fun, especially since it plays like more of the same from the opening minutes of the main feature. Here, Penny and Bolt have been captured by green-eyed Dr Calico, with hamster Rhino genetically modified to take on the bad guys and save the day. Whereas the character was close to grating in the film, as a lead here he’s too involved in the action to talk too much and so works in the way the gag is supposed to. Story supervisor on the movie, Nathan Greno makes his directorial debut with Super Rhino and it’s mostly down to his timing that manages to turn the short into a mega-pastiche of the modern-day action blockbuster a la Mission: Impossible or, more specifically, the over the top nature of the XXX movies. Running 4:30, even though it has its own main title and end credits, Super Rhino plays like many of the recent video short spin-offs: another short that doesn’t quite work as a stand alone film because one needs to know the situations from the movie to gain maximum enjoyment: short and entertaining as it is, it is a disc extra after all.

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A couple of Deleted Scenes serve up two storyboarded moments from an earlier version of Bolt, with optional Introductions from directors Williams and Howard available in a Play All selection (6:37). Dog Fight In Vegas plays Bolt’s finding out he’s not a true superdog in an alternate, much more confusing and less effective way, while a River Sequence has Bolt trying to play hero again, but only just about saving a runaway Rhino by sheer chance. It’s not a terribly original scene by any means, but a highly exciting one all the same and which may well have been the badly needed mid-movie pick-up that Bolt the film would have benefited from in an action sense, and Bolt the character could have done with as a starting point to realising that true strength comes from within.

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Heading Backstage Disney, A New Breed Of Directors: The Filmmakers’ Journey might sound like an ultra-cool video diary of the production, but it’s just the usual fluff piece of studio-grabbed footage, the directors’ talking heads and a lot of John Lasseter bigging them up as the next best things at Disney. Williams and Howard actually seem likeable, switched on guys, and it’s always fascinating to catch a peek behind the scenes at where all the magic happens, but at just four and a half minutes, there’s barely even time here for a quick glimpse, the best we get being soundbites from a series of storyboard pitches, brief talk on how hard it was to tie two characters together via Bolt’s leash, and the fun the staff had in rolling around in an inflatable “hamster ball”.

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Act, Speak! The Voices Of Bolt is more of the same, this time jumping behind the microphone to join Travolta, Cyrus et al in the recording booth. Although Cyrus expresses her take on vocal acting as just like live action because “you’re still making all the faces and the movements and everything”, the following clips showing the complete opposite. Maybe she was over aware of the video camera recording her vocal performance, but she hardly puts anything into it, making a good visual argument for why her resulting lines in the movie sound so flat and uninspired. But of all the voice cast, everybody can’t help but fall over themselves in serving up superlatives on their work, which can get pretty treacly pretty quickly, though at least we get to spend a little more time with the cast in this almost ten minute piece.

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Again bypassing the whole visual development for American Dog, Creating The World Of Bolt takes a look at the painterly style of the movie’s unique backgrounds and how the computer animation was combined with this style. There’s a bit of talk about some early tests, which one might have to wonder if were for Sanders’ version of the film, being that they’re shown in the wider 2.35:1 aspect ratio. But otherwise, this is all very Bolt-centric and provides a decent look at how the artists managed to capture the various lighting moods of Bolt’s multiple locations, running almost to seven minutes. In Music & More, In Session With John Travolta And Miley Cyrus offers a sixty-second bunch of talk from the two about how great they both are, followed by the resulting I Thought I Lost You Music Video (1:47), a typical studio versus clips promo which apparently is not supposed to be Bolt and Penny’s ode to each other, even if that’s how I – and I suspect everyone else – took it during the end credits.

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On Blu-ray Disc: DVD menus in particular now seem to be reverting to simpler affairs in order to give their newer Blu cousins the upper edge (such as with the recent Pinocchio Platinum Edition), but Bolt’s BD menu actually seems to offer less in this regard. Beyond that, the disc contains most of the previews and all of the supplements already mentioned from the DVD in high definition, with the addition of three exclusives, as described below.

First up, Bolt’s Be-Awesome Mission Game again returns to the film’s best setting, the world of Bolt’s TV show, where the player can help our doggone hero defeat The Green-Eyed Man by working their way through a multi-level game based on the hand-drawn end credit styled characters. I’m not much of a gamer, and for some reason when I tried to double back with Bolt he disappeared from my screen, making gameplay somewhat impossible, but for those whose players work without glitches, I can see how more experienced players might get a kick out of this and it’s certainly more genuinely interactive than standard DVD games.

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Connecting to the internet, the BD-Live Network offers further interactivity via Movie Chat, Challenge, live Mail and Movie Rewards online while you watch, though I – like many as I understand – don’t really see the point of these kinds of extras. With new technology comes great responsibility and just because something can be done doesn’t mean that it should be, and quite why you’d want to splash out on upgrading your set up to accommodate the ultimate in picture quality and then cover it all up with all the extra pop-up windows is beyond me.

Finally, the Bolt Art Gallery promises “a peek at the film’s early concepts”, but of course these early concepts begin and end with Bolt’s production and any talk of American Dog, even in a merrily glossed over approach, goes without mention. From sketches to maquettes and digital models, there are a good 250 or so images on offer, covering Character Design, Color Scripts, Storyboard Art and Visual Development, two of the most interesting being an early Bolt so close to One Hundred And One Dalmatians’ Thunderbolt that it would only have caused more comparisons to be made, and an intriguing early combination of Sanders’ Dog and the Bolt they ultimately went with.

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Case Study:

Bypassing any reference to of its Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination, Bolt’s front cover is more content to run with a “Best Disney film since The Incredibles” quote, someone obviously not telling Robert Butler that Brad Bird’s film was a Pixar movie. Certainly the superhero theme is apparent in the rest of the artwork, which takes on the action orientated tone of Bolt’s television series – complete with its villain – rather than anything that actually resembles the rest of the movie. But it’s all rendered pretty neatly on the glossy, embossed slipcover that replicates the sleeve underneath, though a quick glance at the sleeve’s spine suggests the DVD and Digital Copy may be a first pressing bonus only, as everything looks prepared for the printers to reduce this down to a regular slimline BD case for future pressings. The back promises “Blu-ray bonus features you can’t see anywhere else”, but actually all the good stuff is on the DVD too. Inside the disc art retains Disney’s penchant in coloring all their BD artwork a literal blue, and there are booklets promoting the Movie Rewards program, and several upcoming releases.

Ink And Paint:

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Naturally the painterly style of Bolt is much more perceptible on the high definition Blu-ray Disc, though the image – both framed at the theatrical screen dimensions of 1.78:1 – is ultra clear on the DVD too, the result of a direct digital transfer. But when it comes to picking out the detail, and with a lack of compression artefacts, the BD wins hands down with a super-expressive image that really bursts with energy.

Scratch Tracks:

Bolt’s hyperactive, blockbuster movie pastiche mix is great fun on the DVD’s Dolby track, but the DTS-HD option on the BD simply blows it away. The sound effortlessly comes over as more layered, with the various textures not fighting for the same speaker space and a distinct smoothness to the bass that feels a little clunky on the DVD’s rendering. On DVD, French and Spanish 5.1 dubs and subs are bundled in with the English default, with a Spanish Dolby track and subtitles on BD. There’s also a D-Box Motion Code, which promises “a whole new dimension of movie-viewing” for those with the motion-controlled chair gizmos that put the viewer right in the action until 3D becomes as standard in the home as it is becoming in theaters.

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Final Cut:

“Let it begin! Let it BEGIN!” screams Rhino once or twice during Bolt’s duration, though my cry was “keep it up, keep it up!”, referring to the absolutely fun packed opening scenes. The rest of the film can’t maintain that velocity, and that there are really only two such other sequences that inject a bit of action into the movie is to its detriment: I’d have liked to have seen Bolt continually overcoming his lack of abilities to save the day. Bolt is an enjoyably entertaining enough comedy that’s typical of the CG routine these days, the kind of perfectly well made film, like the current Monsters Vs. Aliens that just makes us appreciate a WALL-E or Kung Fu Panda all the more on the rare chances they come along.

As with Disney’s other recent CG fare, Bolt doesn’t score too highly on the extras front, but what there is finds a fair bit of ground covered. No mention whatsoever of American Dog may irk some collectors who would have appreciated a respectable look into why the changes had to occur, but as such Bolt the disc package is just as content as Bolt the movie is to deliver a good, uncomplicated time.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
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SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

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