Monday, November 8, 2010

Our Feature Presentation (4/49) -- Bolt (2008)

Bolt Poster

In the 90’s, Disney dominated the animation market with an iron fist. In general, anyone who stepped up to compete in the animated film arena (20th Century Fox, Universal Studios, and even the Bluthinator himself) was promptly cut down. Disney wrote the rules of the modern animated family feature, and no one could match their efforts in quality.

Unfortunately, by the time the early 2000’s rolled around, audiences had grown a bit numb to the by then well-worn Disney formula (read: musical comedies with broad follow-you-dreams stories and Broadway showtunes). It was at this time that a surly, green ogre crawled its way out of its swamp and stole the crown from the once-mighty champion. Audiences found that they liked the rapid-fire pop culture references, and the newfound, slightly cynical approach to the movie’s fairy tale source material was a welcome change to the naivety and boundless optimism of Disney’s stable of films. The film was also accompanied by a stylistic change in animation—rather than drawn on paper, the entire movie was created in CG, similar to what Pixar had done six years earlier with Toy Story. The new look and new attitude became the new vogue for the industry, and it would take Disney several years before it could launch a CG counter-offensive.

This entry is not about that movie. Nor is this entry a soapbox on how the movie industry learned the wrong lessons from The Little Ogre that Could’s success (for all of its cynicism and audience-winking, Shrek is a movie that has quite a bit of heart, an element that is present in every notable Disney flick; its contemporaries, not so much). Instead, it’s on Disney’s 48th animated feature, and fourth venture into the CG arena, Bolt.

Just sayin'

Bolt starts in Silver Lake Animal Shelter, where a small puppy is playing with a squeezy toy that is shaped like a carrot. A young girl, Penny (Miley Cyrus) enters the shop and buys the puppy. The film then enters movie trailer mode (“5 Years Later,” the dramatic, futuristic text tells us). We learn that Penny’s father has been kidnapped by an evil genius enigmatically known as The Green-Eyed Man, and that Bolt (the puppy from earlier) has been given super powers by Penny’s father in order to protect her. We witness Bolt evade henchmen, dodge missiles, and vault helicopters (in slow motion) in a surprisingly well-choreographed action sequence. The sequence is also surprisingly well-punctuated by humor; in one moment, a helicopter explodes, and then we cut to a soda cup on the opposite side of a lake lightly wiffing over from the shockwave. The sequence ends with Bolt performing his pièce de résistance, the Superbark, and single-handedly (-pawedly?) defeating an entire legion of goons.

The movie then changes gears entirely and we cut to a movie studio, where a television producer patiently explains to a TV executive (“Mindy, from the network” her refers to her as) that the whole show is made as “real” as possible so that Bolt, thinking it’s real, can perform levels of method acting that would make even Daniel Day-Lewis jealous (Robert Downey Jr.’s character from Tropic Thunder comes to mind).

One of these two is not a lead-farmer

Mindy From The Network says that the program needs to change up its formula and get higher ratings, or the whole show gets shut down. The next episode is arranged as a cliff-hanger, where Penny is kidnapped by The Green-Eyed Man. Unfortunately, Bolt still thinks the program is real, and promptly tries to escape the studio. One thing leads to another, and Bolt finds himself in New York City, unaware that his whole life is a shame, and that things don't sporadically burst into flames if he stares at them really hard.

The rest of the film has Bolt making his way cross-country, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey-style, learning that he’s just a regular dog, but knowing that he still loves Penny. Along the way, he meets up with alley cat Mittens (Susie Essman) and hamster Rhino (Mark Walton, a story artist for the film whose storyboard performance for the character was so well-liked that he was hired to voice the character for the main film). Meanwhile, Penny tries to deal with the loss of Bolt as best she can.

I remember seeing the trailer for this one when I went to see Wall-E back in 2008. I remember being rather unimpressed; the movie looked like an uninspired CG cash-in, and the fact that it primary cast consisted of John Travolta and Miley Cyrus did nothing to assuage my fears (my dislike of celebrity stunt-casting is deep-seated). Imagine my surprise, when all was said and done, that I ended up liking this movie quite a bit.

This will be on the test

Something to keep in mind: this movie is not necessarily an innovative take on the "everything you know on TV is wrong" genre of film-making (of which there are a surprising number of participants). It hits most of the major stops on the way: delusions that the whole thing is real, the cognitive dissonance of finding that s@$# is fake, growing and moving past it, etc. What really differentiates Bolt from being a toothless (though still particularly safe) entry in the Disney canon are its little touches. There are a host of small "aha" moments and small gags peppered throughout the film that contribute to its level of humor, though nothing that takes away from the basic emotional appeal of the movie at large. True, it doesn't take any huge risks, but it aims to please rather than challenge, and there are a fair few things to be pleased about with Bolt.

The one thing that really caught my attention in this movie is how profound an understanding it has of the behind-the-scenes aspect of movie-making and show biz. The TV producer and Mindy From The Network’s discussion of focus groups and 18-35 year-old demographics is a hoot, and the movie shows a lot of insight into the goings-on of a successful television program; small things like a cast member referring to a makeup artist by their first name or cueing up a special effects shot make the production seem a lot less slapdash than most films about TV shows, which usually amount to a director yelling things through a megaphone. No one exemplifies the small ways Bolt understands the biz better than Penny’s agent, who is an absolute toolbox, with his smarmy, slightly-condescending mannerisms wrapped in an oily rag of upbeat, faux-cheerfulness (he also has a Bluetooth headset permanently attached to his head. Toolbox).

A sleazy Hollywood agent?  How original!

Home Depot.

Bolt’s art style falls somewhere between Shrek’s uber-realistic look and Despicable Me’s over-the-top caricatures (i.e., some characters are more cartoony than others). I was impressed by the small details in the way the animals were animated, like the slightly-unnerving twitches from the pigeon characters (it looks EXACTLY like real pigeons) and the pads on Bolt’s paws. Another interesting and cool-looking choice was the backgrounds; there are several points during the movie where the background appears to be an oil-painted canvas, which gave the landscapes a nice warm look.

I think my most pleasant surprise can from the voice work. As I mentioned before, the two primary cast members are John Travolta and Miley Cyrus, and their names are on the bloody movie poster. When all is said and done, though, everyone in the cast does a great job bringing their characters to life. The best thing I can say for Travolta’s performance is that I never felt like I was watching John Travolta voice an animated dog; he injects his performance with humor, emotion, and general enthusiasm, and I was too caught up in the character to think who really was voicing him. Penny’s casting smells of Disney cross-brand marketing (indeed, Penny was originally voiced by Hit-Girl, and she allegedly recorded lines for the entire movie before Cyrus was brought on-board), but Cyrus does an excellent job of keeping her character expressive. Essman, whom you may remember as the foul-mouthed wife of Larry David’s manager on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, is sarcastic and sympathetic, and gives her character lots of depth. Walton is an absolute riot. All of this is helped along with some great facial animation, helping turn the actors’ lines into stellar performances.

Bolt has a number of little touches that help add up to be more than the sum of their parts. What could have been a pretty ordinary movie (and sort of is, in terms of story progression) is instead a fun, well-rounded road movie that finds a fine balance between quippy humor, real excitement, and, yes, a whole lot of heart.


Top Three Songs:

  • N/A

Favorite Scene:

  • The climactic rescue on the soundstage

Favorite Character:

  • Bolt

The Jar-Jar:

  • Rhino (I liked him, but I imagine there will be some who will be off-put by his fanboyisms, over-enthusiasm, and liberal usage of the word “awesome”)


How I Watched It:

Bolt is not only the first CG film we’ve covered on Our Feature Presentation, it’s also the first Blu-ray as well! This one was bought from Movie Gallery in Belgrade’s going-out-of-business sale, and, unfortunately, did not come with the advertised DVD and digital copy of the film. I also needed to find an extra Blu-ray case for it, as it came in a regular DVD case (yeah, I really didn’t think it through much at the time). Fortunately, I was able to jack my roommate’s case to his largely unwatched copy Constantine, so I was able to make things alright in the end.

Fortunately, the disc itself is excellent. Blu-ray makes the picture positively pop out of the screen, with long blades of grass and the fur on Bolt and Rhino looking especially cool. The disc also has a host of extras, but unfortunately nothing of too much substance; there’s a neat bit on the in-the-studio stuff with the voice actors (something that I’m all-too-happy to watch), but both other Behind The Scenes docs are between four and six minutes long (the movie’s history was supposedly a difficult one, so I suppose I can see why it may have been glossed-over for promotional purposes (see, not condone, though)). There’s also a short film with Rhino, a music video for the ending song, “I Thought I’d Lost You.”

Unfortunately, Bolt was released on Blu-ray at a time when the technology was younger, and there are significantly more and longer loading times on the disc than other Disney Blu-rays (or other newer Blu-rays in general). Not a deal-breaker, but something to note.

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