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Notes on Bolt

Saw Bolt yesterday. Before the screening they gave everyone a promotional deck of playing cards featuring development artwork from the film. Aren’t the pencil images of the lead characters (above) beautiful. I really wanted to see that movie.

Instead I saw the CG version (and I saw it flat, not in Disney Digital 3D). What did I think? First off, let me recommend that all Cartoon Brew readers see this feature. It’s definitely a good solid family film and an improvement (story-wise) over Chicken Little and Meet The Robinsons. I don’t know all the behind-the-scenes problems – but I’m aware John Lasseter got involved, the director was replaced, the film was reworked and pushed through production in eighteen months.

The first ten or 15 minutes of the film is pure action. I’m talkin’ Incredibles, 007, Jason Bourne-style fast cutting with wild stunts, chases, explosions, cliff-hangers and a dog with super powers. Could Brad Bird have had a hand in this section? This was exciting stuff. Actually, this action-packed opening sequence is preceded by a heart-tugging opening scene that shows Bolt being adopted several years earlier.

Following the action set-piece, the film then goes to great lengths to explain the set-up: Bolt is the star of a TV show who is motivated to “act”, by his director (James Lipton, a nice touch), because he believes the situations (and his super-powers) are real. Before you can say “deus ex machina”, Bolt is accidently shipped to New York and the remainder of the film is taken up with his journey back to Hollywood, his traveling companions, and his realization that he isn’t who he thinks he is.

John Travolta does a great job as Bolt’s voice. Susie Essman (from Curb Your Enthusiasm, as Mittens the alley cat) and Disney story artist Mark Walton (as a fanboy hamster) deserve kudos as the true co-stars of the picture. I suppose I should mention Miley Cyrus. Her part is much smaller despite it being the pivotal role of Bolt’s human master. Does anyone know if Miley was in this film from day one – or did she replace another actress and was shoehorned into the production after the success of Hannah Montana?

The film hits all the right notes as the characters trek across America and have numerous adventures. The climactic rescue of Penny from a burning Hollywood sound stage is also quite effective. The production has all the polish we’ve come to expect from a Disney (or Pixar) production (including the now-requisite 50s stylized 2D end titles) – however there were several little things that kept pulling me out of the film. For one, the film’s settings (in the old days we’d say “the backgrounds”) are mainly photo-real, but are sometimes painted. There’s one scene in New York, where Bolt is staring at the back of a U-Haul truck. My eye was distracted by the unrealistic painting of the truck’s poorly rendered license plate.

Another thing got to me… there’s a dialogue scene between Bolt and Mittens in a field in Las Vegas. I admired how they got the intense Nevada daytime sunlight just right. But the dialogue track took me out of the scene. The characters sounded like they were in a recording booth – not in a Las Vegas field. I’ve never thought about this before seeing this scene – but couldn’t dialogue for an important outdoor scene actually be recorded outside? It would’ve added touch of realism to the situation.

But these are just tiny nit-picks. Overall, I really enjoyed the film – especially its digs at the behind the scenes world of network television production. Bolt is a lot of fun, and a good step in the right direction as Disney continues to rebuild its brand in Feature Animation. I’m rooting for Bolt, and the studio, to succeed.

P.S. to Disney brass: I still wouldn’t mind seeing a hand drawn version of Bolt as depicted in the development art. Could such an idea be in the cards – and not just in the playing cards?