Feb 8, 2009

Bolt [3D] [PG]

Dir: Byron Howard / Chris Williams
For some time now Disney’s animation arm has been looking beleaguered, their acquisition of their collaborators Pixar looked like a calculated move to reinvigorate the department, and though Bolt was in producion long before Pixar’s John Lasseter and Ed Catmull came aboard it certainly bears several large Pixar fingerprints.

Originally titled American Dog, Bolt is the story of a dog (Travolta) who is the super powered hero of a TV show that he stars in with his person, Penny (Cyrus). The problem is that Bolt thinks the show, and his powers, are real, so when Penny is ‘kidnapped’ Bolt escapes to attempt to save her, ending up in New York. Believing that Penny still needs saving Bolt crosses the country to find her, with the reluctant help of New York cat Mittens (Essman) and the excitable help of brave hamster Rhino (Walton).

The first film released under the new team at Disney, Bolt is also the studio’s first major 3D release (though Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons also had limited 3D releases). I’ve had problems, from a technical standpoint, with all the 3D films I’ve seen so far, but you have to hand it to Disney, aside from a slight softness to some images, and the odd bit of blur in motion, they’ve nailed it here. This is easily the best 3D I’ve seen, with no ghosting in sight and strong, usually distinct, depth effects. If they’ve proven that the technology functions what Disney has failed to do with Bolt is to demonstrate any particular reason for its existence. The depth effects work, sure, but why are they there? They don’t draw you in to the story (if anything they eject you from it, because you end up thinking about the effects rather than the story), and if it’s never immersive, never more than a gimmick then, really, what’s the point?

Quite apart from the 3D the film does look good. The design is strong and appealing, with humans having a nicely cartoony look, heavily influenced by The Incredibles and the animation is beautiful; characterful, fluid and intricate. The voice acting is a bit more of a mixed bag. John Travolta shows up as Bolt, but that’s about all he does. He never really creates a character here, the way that Tom Hanks and Tim Allen did for Toy Story, he simply shows up and says the words adequately. Blander still is Miley Cyrus as Penny, who expresses the sadness about her dog being lost with all the pathos I might muster to say “I dropped my ice cream”. However the film is stolen from under the names noses a couple of stellar supporting turns. Susie Essman is terrific as Mittens, sarcastic and funny to begin with, but credibly warming to and becoming friends with Bolt, but it's animator Mark Walton who runs away with the show, he was originally drafted only as a temp voice for Rhino, but his almost psychotically enthusiastic tones are a perfect fit for the character and his every line is an hilarious joy.

The story is a bit pedestrian, and somewhat familiar – think Toy Story meets The Incredible Journey, but it provides a solid enough framework on which to hang the gags and the set pieces. What matters is that most of the content works; the gags stick and the set pieces are generally involving, and the film powers along at a decent rate. The kids will never be bored, and the adults should remain awake, and largely amused. Bolt is a very safe play for Disney, an entirely traditional, not especially challenging or groundbreaking, family comedy. It works well enough, most of the time, but it's no Toy Story.

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