Bolt – Blu-ray Review

After a successful theatrical run in both 2D and Disney Digital 3D, Disney’s 48th animated film arrives on Blu-Ray and DVD this week, one of a only small handful with a PG rating. BOLT had a troubled production history, going through several different titles, stories, and directors under newly minted C.O.O. and former Pixar chief John Lasseter and was apparently rushed through production to make its holiday 2008 release date. Amazingly, the completed film bears but a few scars from its troubled journey to theaters; and though the Disney penchant for flavor-of-the-month casting leaves us with Miley Cyrus (who we were ready to dislike, but actually did a nice job), John Travolta holds the title role better than expected, and we’re always happy to find Malcolm McDowell in a supporting role.

The plot is aggressively simple: The super-powered canine Bolt and his “Person”, Penny, live in a world of constant peril from mad genius Dr. Calico and his black-clad mercenary army on one of the nation’s top-rated television shows. To keep the performance of its four-legged star realistic, the cast and crew keep Bolt fully insulated from the outside world, and completely unaware that he’s on a TV show. One day, believing Penny to be in trouble, Bolt inadvertently escapes the safety of the studio and into a NYC-bound shipping crate. Bolt begins his journey back to Hollywood and Penny without his superpowers, but with the help of an alley cat, Mittens, and a plastic ball-enclosed hamster, Rhino.

Working against Bolt from the very start is the inescapable feeling that you’re being sold a product; even the posters for the film could easily have been advertising a new energy drink, as the title alone says little about the film. The project had been in development long before the Disney-Pixar merger placed the former’s animation department in the hands of John Lasseter, who oversaw a massive overhaul of what was then called American Dog. It’s unknown exactly which changes were dictated by Lasseter, but a peek at the 2 deleted scenes (shown as detailed storyboards) shows a frightening fight between Bolt and a pair of alley dogs that could have been taken from the pages of The Dark Knight Returns! This cut seems indicative of a more mature tone that the film was wise to avoid, though there are a few mildly intense action sequences (particularly a fire during the conclusion) that are the likely reasons for the PG rating. We would have enjoyed seeing some of these sequences in the theatrical 3D process; we heard very good reports back on an experience that was more immersive than the typical “stabbing things towards the camera” 3D tricks. At the moment, there is no dependable way to reproduce decent 3D effects at home, even with the ultra-high resolution of Blu-Ray, and we’re glad that Disney didn’t waste disc space trying (we’ve still got a headache from Paramount’s Friday the 13th 3D disc)

As the dialog for an animated film is recorded first, it’s likely that the lackluster vocal work was in place prior to Lasseter’s corporate elevation. Voice acting in animated films is a largely unsung art – one that is usually only noticed when done poorly. The supporting characters fail to create much of an impression and will largely evaporate from the memories of most adults within hours after seeing the film. The biggest misfire is Mittens the cat, voiced by Susie Essman in the sort of grating New Yawk accent that stopped being funny while the Bowery Boys were still doing it. But even performers like Travolta, Cyrus, McDowell – and, surprisingly, James Lipton, as the television show director – are at the service of a script that just can’t sustain interest once Bolt escapes from the studio confines.

An early scene of high-powered action from the Bolt TV show.

For the early scenes, the film plays off an interesting twist on The Truman Show, as even Bolt’s animal co-stars are aware that they’re performers in a fictional show. Once Bolt begins his cross-country trek, however, the story becomes more of a standard kid’s adventure without much emotional resonance, putting it firmly in sub-Pixar territory (and we’re getting just as tired of making that comparison as you are of reading it).

Disney’s Blu-Ray of the title is a stunner; a direct transfer from the digital master print that brings out the film’s rich color palette and bright animation. The film seems designed from the word ‘go’ to be a showpiece for a Blu-Ray home system. Textures are simply amazing; from the black mesh on the uniforms of the show-within-the-show to the metallic sheen of a street vendor’s cart. But oddly, humans lack detail and seem almost unfinished, as if they were running a few animation passes short prior to release. This isn’t a complaint about the disc – this is exactly how the film looked in theaters.

As with several of their higher profile Blu-Ray discs, Disney has included the film on several different formats. Disc 2 contains a digital copy of the film for playing on portable devices (we don’t have children, but this seems like a particularly good idea for films like this), and a third disc contains a standard-def DVD of the film. There is also a short film, “Super Rhino,” that we don’t think played with the film’s theatrical engagement (it only makes sense if you’ve already seen the feature) and whose entertainment value is in direct proportion to how funny you found Rhino to be in the feature. Other features are as follows:

  • In Session with John Travolta & Miley Cyrus – BTS footage of the recording of their duet from the film. It will take a week to get the chill of hearing Travolta comparing Cyrus to Olivia Newton-John out of your system.
  • Music Video – The duet mentioned above
  • Act! Speak! The Voices of Bolt/A New Breed of Directors: A Filmmakers’ Journey/Creating the World of Bolt – the usual studio-approved EPK blather
  • Deleted Scenes – Two sequences in storyboard form; the alley fight mentioned above and a river rescue of Rhino.
  • Bolt’s Be-Awesome Mission Game – If anyone has been able to play one of these games using their Blu-Ray remote with any measure of success, please leave a comment below.
  • Bolt Art Gallery

Bolt‘s action sequences may be a bit too much for very young children, though more grown-up fans of animation shouldn’t think the PG rating applies to the story – this one is strictly for kids.

About the Author

Drew Fitzpatrick

By day, Drew Fitzpatrick toils at publishing in the black heart of Manhattan. But by night, he dons a pair of fetishistic black leather gloves and grinds out the "Internet’s only horror-themed Blog": The Blood-Spattered Scribe.

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