Disney fans should notice something different about the latest Disney animated feature film, Bolt. Yes, it's still a full blown CGI extravaganza featuring a virtual zoo of furry and feathered family-friendly animals. Yes, it has some very big names like John Travolta and Teen Sensation Mylie Cyrus, attached to it. Naturally, there are some very overt references to pop culture scattered through the film like pigeon guano.
Still, you shouldn't be surprised if you wind up quickly getting seriously involved with the tale of this displaced dog and his cat and hamster companions. The reason, as noted in yesterday's interview with film co-directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams, is this is the start of a new era at the Mouse Factory. It's the first Disney film to be produced since Mr. Pixar himself, John Lassetter, took the creative throne at the Magic Kingdom. You don't really need too trained an eye to see the difference either.
Just to recap, our hero, Bolt (Travolta), is an all-white German Shepherd who has been raised since he was a pup by Penny (Cyrus). He's actually not the dumbest dog in the world. He takes orders and can do the most amazing tricks with the slightest of cues. It isn't long before he and Penny end up the star of their own hit action-adventure TV series, replete with the expected stage mom (Grey DeLisle), agent (Greg German) and hyper-tense director (James Lipton in his best role since the GEICO commercials).
The problem is, in general, in this universe dogs just aren't the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree. Maybe it has something to do with Howard and Williams being cat fanciers, but the feline breed seem to be about the only creatures with fur and/or feathers who have a true picture of the real world. This becomes particularly obvious with the all-too-short cameos of the Veteran Cat (Dietrich Bader) and the series co-star, the stray cat Mittens (Susie Essman). Not that they're perfect either, as shown by VC's sidekick, an overly fluffy Himalayan.
Anyway, the real problem is at the start of the film, Bolt's universe has basically only been two places, the pet shop Penny bought him in, and the TV studio that keeps in him a trailer on the lot. He honestly thinks he's the greatest hero in the world. At the same time, he's not from Krypton. He's just an earth dog. This means he doesn't don a cape, but otherwise Krypto can intellectual run circles around Bolt.
Then the amazing happens. Bolt is accidentally shipped, by the toon equivalent of Fed X, to New York City. Upon escaping his prison, a trio of pigeons convinces the discombobulated doggie that the world is under the thrall of a cabal of sinister kitties. This leads to the heroic Alsatian to literally collar poor Mittens and begin a trek across the United States, a pancake house menu providing their only means of navigating this cross-country trek to the realities of Hollywood. Along the way, they pick up a trailer park hamster, Rhino (Mark Walton), whose has lived way too long inside his exercise ball and watched way too much TV for any sentient creature's good.
Mind you, this is only the first 10-15 minutes of the film. What matters are the remaining 75 or so are packed full of fun, tenderness and overall solid family entertainment.
While one should not knock this directorial debut of Williams and Howard, Lasetter's indelible stamp is impossible to ignore. Overall, the characters act with a far greater level of sophistication than the previous era of Disney films. While the animation itself is broader as far as exaggerated character design. Bolt's head is just way too big for its own good. The emotional displays though, particularly of Mittens and Rhino, are incredibly strong in spite of the designs. That's the Lasetter touch.
Another fine touch is the development of the side characters. The various pigeons Bolt, Mittens and Rhino encounter along their amazing journey are all equally hilarious, particularly the Gotham feathered rats. Voiced by animators Lino DeSalvo, Tim Mertens and voice artist/comic Todd Cumming, edited footage of these "boids" should be sent to Tom Ruegger to show how they really should have done The Goodfeathers. Mertens' Bobby, in particular, is a great parody of another Bobby (DeNiro). No matter which regional version of the pigeons show up throughout the movie, keep an eye on them. Williams and Howard do an incredible job to give them solid individual traits depending on where they roost.
One also has to admit, Travolta does a more than credible job in his first animated role. He bleaches out any of his usual mannerisms and plays the harebrained hound in a truly straightforward manner. The same can be said for Cyrus, who left Hannah Montana on the other side of the recording booth and just does a touching performance as a young teenager longing for her best four-legged friend forever.
The standout vocal performance belongs to Walton. His Rhino has a touch of Chris Farley in him, but is all the better for it. Scenes such as his rescue attempt in a dog pound will leave one in stitches for days to come. A veteran Disney storyboard artist, he's joining the ranks of animators ranging from Lou Romano and a growing legion of others who prove they know as much, if not more, of marquis actors who ostensibly are going to put the fannies in the loge. The same goes for Essman, best known for her standup work, as the abandoned and heartbroken cat who heavily relies on her nine lives worth of wits to survive.
Overall, one gets the impression that Bolt probably won't let anyone forget Lasetter's other major animation production, Wall*E. On the other hand, if you're looking for a solid film to take the entire family to (with the only blood suckers being Hollywood agents), you'll find this movie is definitely worth a gander and a jumbo box of popcorn. All one can add is if this is any indicator of what to expect from Lasetter's reign at Disney, it's truly a solid start.