Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bolt / ***½ (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Bolt: John Travolta
Penny: Miley Cyrus
Mittens: Susie Essman
Rhino: Mark Walton
Dr. Calico: Malcolm McDowell
The Director: James Lipton
The Agent: Greg Germann

Walt Disney Animation Studios present a film directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams. Written by Dan Fogelman and Williams. Running time: 103 min. Rated PG (for some mild action and peril).

For a little over a year, I’ve been trying to see a movie in the new digital 3D format. I finally found my opportunity in the strangest of locations, a Disney Cruise ship. Since the company that owned the cruise ship also owns many movies, they needed no special permissions to play any of their movies they wished. And, of course, they had the top technology projectors to screen the movies as they were meant to be. In the case of “Bolt”, that was in digital 3D.

While the format was fascinating (I will be writing about my feelings on the 3D format in a future article), the movie was like a breath of fresh air and a blast from the past all at once. “Bolt” is a loving film, filled with adventure and friendship. It takes the form of a road movie with a lot of heart. It contains great humor, loveable characters, and a touching message about friendship and family.

Bolt (voiced by John Travolta, “Hairspray”) is a Hollywood dog who stars in his own action/adventure television series in which he possesses amazing superpowers—superstrength, superspeed, and laser beam eyesight. In the show, the evil Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell, NBC’s “Heroes”) is after Bolt’s master, Penny (Miley Cyrus, “Hannah Montana”). Penny’s father is the brilliant scientist who is being held prisoner by Calico, but Calico needs Penny to get her father to spill his secrets. Bolt is her protector.

The action sequences of the television series are spectacular. They have a lot of fun with action standards, like the expendability of henchmen and the sheer destruction that such action sequences bring to their surroundings. The 3D plays an exciting role in these sections, placing you right in the middle of the action, but it doesn’t seem to be a necessity to portray the kinetic cinematic power of these scenes.

In real life… well, that’s just the thing. As far as Bolt is concerned, the show is real life. He thinks he really possesses his superpowers, and since the actress who plays Penny in the series is really his owner, his duty to protect her remains even when the cameras have stopped rolling. Penny wants Bolt to have a normal dog life, but her slippery agent (Greg Germann, “Quarantine”) and overly intense director (James Lipton, “Inside the Actor’s Studio”) are determined not to allow any elements that might destroy the illusion of the show for Bolt.

This makes Bolt entirely unprepared to deal with the real world when he’s accidentally shipped overnight to New York. The New York sequence is one of the funniest in the movie, depicting Bolt discovering that his powers don’t seem to be working—a malady that he becomes convinced is due to his weakness to styrofoam. He also meets some wiseguy pigeons who just can’t figure out where they know him from, even when a city bus with a giant “Bolt” advertisement on its side rolls up next to them.

The pigeons lead Bolt to a cat, Mittens (Susie Essman, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), to get information on the whereabouts of Penny. Mittens starts out as Bolt’s prisoner, baffled by the insight that Bolt thinks his show is real. Soon she realizes Bolt is just another lost pet, like herself, looking for the love and companionship that have been denied her. Soon they gain another traveling companion on their way across the country to L.A.—a hamster in a ball named Rhino (Mark Walton, “Chicken Little”) who is Bolt’s “biggest fan!”

I noticed one of the executive producers was Pixar guru/VP John Lasseter, and it seems as if he brought in Pixar’s incredible knack for inserting the minutest of details in every scene of this cartoon. Observe how the pigeons (a recurring theme in the movie, with pigeons of different accents and mannerisms showing up in every major stop on the journey) move their heads as they talk. The animators obviously studied the body and head movements of pigeons very carefully to make these guys something more than your average cartoon animals.

“Bolt” plays out like a classic buddy road picture, but with the energetic adventure of the best Disney animation. The 3D format is very successful at inserting the audience right into the action of the movie, but I think I would have been carried away by this movie based on its exuberance alone. This is the type of animation that I remember getting excited to see when I was a kid, an enjoyable ride in the line of “The Rescuers”. It’s such a relief to experience such an adventure in the midst of all the dark themes that dominate most of the best movies made today.

“Bolt” will be released on Disney Blu-Ray and DVD on Mar. 24.

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