When Pixar’s John Lasseter and Ed Catmull assumed control of Walt Disney Feature Animation in 2006, all projects currently in the pipeline were subjected to a thorough review. Some titles, such as Steve Anderson’s Meet the Robinsons, were sufficiently far into production that only minor tuning up was possible; others, in earlier stages of development, underwent far more rigorous re-imaginings. Among this latter category was American Dog, a project being developed by the creator, co-writer and co-director of 2002’s Lilo & Stitch, Chris Sanders, and at the time by far the most exciting-looking of Disney’s announced state of titles. Lilo & Stitch, seemingly against the odds, had gone on to be a commendable box office success during one of Disney’s darkest periods, and with good reason: it was lively, offbeat, unique and generally entertaining, a truly director-driven product that had somehow made its way out under the radar of the studio’s myriad meddling executives. The film showed that there was life in the Mouse yet, and many people, not unreasonably, began to see Sanders as a potential saviour for Disney animation.
Then, word came in that Lasseter was unhappy with Sanders’ vision for the new film, particularly where its plot was concerned. So the story goes, copious “suggestions” of improvements were communicated by Lasseter, and when these were rejected Sanders was unceremoniously removed from the project and ultimately quit the studio for arch-rival DreamWorks Animation. American Dog, meanwhile, now under the guidance of first-time directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard under the watchful eye of Lasseter, was taken back to the drawing board and reworked almost from scratch, metamorphosing into a radically different concept, Bolt.
The eponymous mutt, Bolt, is the star of a hit TV show in which he and his owner, Penny, fight crime in primetime. The twist is that Bolt doesn’t realise this, thanks to the director’s elaborate attempts to convince him that it’s all real in order to extract the perfect performance from the dog. Things take a turn for the worse when, in an attempt to improve ratings, a cliff-hanger is engineered in which Penny is abducted. Believing that she has really been captured by the nefarious Dr. Calico, and believing that he truly does possess superpowers, Bolt escapes from the studio and sets out on a cross-country mission to be reunited with his owner. Along the way, he learns all sorts of important lessons about the true meaning of friendship and being proud of who you are, in the grand Disney tradition.
Sound familiar? It should. The character arc Bolt experiences is virtually identical to that of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story – evidence, perhaps, of the heavy involvement Lasseter had in the story development process. Indeed, if Bolt has a single glaring flaw, it’s how predictable it is. True, the storylines of Disney’s features rarely venture too far outside the box, but it’s hard to shake the impression when watching this one that you’ve seen it (or something very similar) before. Certainly, it’s a long way from Chris Sanders’ original pitch about a martini-sipping, womanising celebrity dog being stranded in the Nevada desert with a one-eyed cat and a radioactive rabbit, but even allowing for the absence of Sanders’ quirky vision it’s hard not to feel slightly disappointed about how rote it feels. There’s nary a plot twist that can’t be predicted in advance of it happening, and the overriding impression left is that the film’s makers were making a conscious effort not to rock the boat. On the other hand, one can see why Disney went down this relatively safe route: as the first animated feature to be developed substantially under the guidance of the studio’s new management, a sure-fire hit was needed in order to wash away the stigma of the previous regime, so it’s understandable that risk-taking was kept to a minimum. And, judging by the box office returns, this approach seems to have paid dividends: well on its way to grossing $300 million worldwide, it’s a far cry from the dismal failures of output from the tail end of the Michael Eisner era such as Treasure Planet and Home on the Range.
What Bolt ultimately does well, therefore, is to serve up safe, uncontroversial family entertainment – in order words, traditional Disney fare. And it does entertain, albeit without the quirkiness that made Lilo & Stitch so refreshing. The concept of a TV star who believes the world he inhabits is real is an inherently funny one, and the story team get the most out of this by pairing Bolt up with two dramatically different sidekicks – a wiseass stray cat called Mittens, who regards Bolt’s delusions with a mixture of sardonic disbelief and horror, and an overweight hamster named Rhino who recognises Bolt from the television and is every bit as deluded as him. While the humour is more gently witty than laugh-out-loud hilarious, I spent most of the film’s duration with a smile on my face. In a recent interview in the Herald, John Lasseter alluded to Walt Disney’s old mantra of balancing every laugh with a tear, and I definitely got the sense that this philosophy was being applied to its fullest extent with Bolt. While, particularly towards the end, it runs a definite risk of straying into the territory of mawkish sentimentality, the film’s heart, rooted in the relationship between Bolt and Penny, somehow remains sincere throughout.
It’s also an attractive if generic-looking film. The human characters, who all have that familiar “CGI people” look, don’t fare particularly well, and the designs of Bolt and his cronies tend to play things as safely as the plot, but the movie has a pleasant colour palette, and in terms of expressiveness the animation is leaps and bounds beyond that of Disney’s main competitors at DreamWorks and Blue Sky. Special praise must go to the background artwork supervised by art director Paul Felix, which, unusually for a CGI feature, has a heavily stylised, painterly appearance. This aesthetic, which becomes more pronounced as the film progresses, is arguably the most obvious holdover from the Sanders version of the project, and serves as a rather nice companion piece to the watercolour backgrounds of Lilo & Stitch.
Less a return to form for Disney and more a significant step in the right direction, Bolt has its heart in the right place but seems condemned to being remembered less for the end result than for what it might have been had things turned out differently. I suspect I’m not alone in hoping (rather unrealistically, it must be admitted) that Chris Sanders will one day get to make American Dog his way (judging by his Kiskaloo web comic, he has at least retained the rights to his one-eyed cat character). Until then, Bolt stands as an enjoyable but ultimately lightweight addition to the Disney canon.
Despite my reservations about the way the film itself turned out, at least there can be no doubt that Disney has struck a home run with the BD transfer. Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (slightly opening up the framing from the theatrical 1.85:1), Bolt looks superb from start to finish, and I honestly can’t fault it in any way. As with Pixar’s recent films, the team behind Bolt have generally favoured a slightly diffuse look, which means that the image doesn’t necessarily scream “razor sharp” at every opportunity, but looks considerably more natural than it would had they gone for a crisper look à la the likes of Open Season or Big Buck Bunny. The compression is effortlessly handled from start to finish, and there is no evidence of digital manipulation in the form of filtering, edge enhancement and the like. A poster child for what the Blu-ray format is capable of and a nice big stinky sock to shove into the mouths of those who still believe that animation doesn’t benefit from high definition, this transfer gets the coveted “10/10” accolade from me.
The main audio track, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 affair, serves as a solid companion piece to the excellent image quality. Bass is impressively meaty, particularly in the opening prologue that is later revealed to be an episode from the TV show in which Bolt stars, and Randy Thom’s intricate sound design, with its detailed and imaginative use of multichannel effects, is ably conveyed throughout. Dialogue reproduction is top notch, and the overall impression conveyed is that the viewer has been plonked in the middle of a living, breathing world.
A Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 dub is also provided, along with optional English and Spanish subtitles, which cover both the film and the extras.
Bolt arrives on BD in a three-disc set, but if you think this means a feature-laden package, think again: one of these discs is nothing more than the standard definition DVD version of the film, while the other is a glorified Frisbee, referred to by some as a “Digital Copy”. Despite the film’s box office success, Disney haven’t exactly pushed the boat out in terms of bonus content, generally favouring shorter, more lightweight featurettes than the feature-length documentaries for which many of their best releases have become known:
- Bonus Short: Super Rhino: The by now ubiquitous short film spin-off, this rather entertaining one gives the character of Rhino his moment in the limelight. Tonally and stylistically, it fits in very well with the main feature. (Running time: 04:27)
- Deleted Scenes: Playable with or without an introduction by directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard, these two additional scenes are presented in storyboard form, both illustrating alternate attempts to tackle the moment when Bolt realises he doesn’t have superpowers. One of these, a dog fight in an alleyway, is surprisingly dark given the tone of the rest of the film. (Running time: 06:37)
- In Session with John Travolta and Miley Cyrus: The voices behind Bolt and Penny respectively, who also provided the song for the film’s closing credits, climb up each other’s sphincters in this extremely short and extremely pointless little back-patting session. (Running time: 00:59)
- “I Thought I Lost You” Music Video: Intercutting clips from the film with footage of John Travolta and Miley Cyrus crooning in the recording studio, there’s not really much to say about this grating little number. (Running time: 01:47)
- A New Breed of Directors: The Filmmakers’ Journey: This featurette looks in a very superficial sense at the role of the films’ first-time directors, covering the challenges they faced and how amazing and wacky all their colleagues are. (Running time: 04:34)
- Act, Speak! The Voices of Bolt: Why do the featurettes on voice actors for animated films always end up with the longest running times? Despite this, we don’t learn a whole lot from this piece, other than that John Travolta seems to be operating under the mistaken impression that the images on the screen in this CGI feature are drawings. (Running time: 09:48)
- Creating the World of Bolt: Probably the most substantial feature of the bunch, this final piece examines the film’s look, covering everything from the character animation to technical touches such as the painterly backgrounds and the lighting, which was varied to give each of the film’s locations a slightly different look. (Running time: 06:45)
Impressively, all of these are presented in high definition.
BD Exclusive Extras
The following bonus materials are unique to the high definition release:
- Bolt’s Be-Awesome Mission: It seems to be a requirement that every Disney BD and DVD release these days come with a tie-in game, and for it to be, well, a bit rubbish. This one, which is in the form of a platformer, actually shows some imagination, but ends up being fundamentally crippled by the fact that its controls are about as intuitive and responsive as trying to bite your own ear.
- Bolt Art Galleries: Split into four different sections – Character Design, Colour Script, Storyboard Art and Visual Development – these images showcase the diverse drawing styles and ideas that went into developing the film’s look, although, somewhat disappointingly, they all seem to be derived from the post-Sanders period of its development, making this section feel slightly incomplete.
- BD-Live: Sorry, I’m not a citizen of the United States of America and was therefore unable to make use of this function. Regional lock-outs win again! As the French would say, nil points!
Click the image above to enlarge to full size.
The lightweight nature of the extras and the elevated price resulting from the inclusion of two additional throwaway discs aside, this BD release of Bolt is impressive. While I would have liked to see a little more meat in terms of bonus content, the audio-visual presentation can’t be faulted in any way, and the film itself, although occupying the middle ground in terms of the quality of Disney’s animated features, certainly hits all the right spots as far as humour and emotion are concerned.
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