Review: ‘Bolt’

Wait… an all-star voice cast for a computer-animated story we’ve never heard of before, and it’s watchable, too?

Bolt (John Travolta) is a super-powered dog. His best pal is a human girl named Penny (Miley Cyrus), and together they fights the forces of evil… every week on their hit television show. When a mishap separates Bolt from Penny and strands him in real life outside the studio, the last thing he remembers is her being kidnapped and certain that he’s the only one who can save her. His real problems, however, are far worse: Bolt doesn’t know he really doesn’t have any superpowers, and the studio is already moving to replace him with another dog.

Wow, this was a lot better than advertised. Sure, it’s a kid’s movie dressed up so parents won’t be completely bored out of their mind, but it surprisingly complete and heartfelt as compared to a lot of these films. Could this be the “Pixar effect” of telling full, meaningful stories (and reaping the box office rewards) that DreamWorks Animation has also caught onto? As expensive and involved as these CG animated films are (especially in 3D), you’d think studios could come up with something more amusing and less forgettable than computer-generated fart jokes more often.

Unlike Pixar, which uses their proprietary Renderman engine, the “off-the-shelf” is really starting to look good, especially when rendering outdoor scenes. Some of the backgrounds in Bolt look so good that you might think they filmed the scene and then painted the characters over it; the only real giveaway is that is looks too clean. Couple that with stylized character design and real-world effects like fire and the only thing holding a production back is a great story.

2009 saw a huge number of CG animated films (and one traditionally animated film made an appearance as well.) As a storytelling medium, the sky’s the limit, and it all comes down to balancing the right story elements with the rules the writer’s establish. Still, it’s a lot easier to re-shoot what doesn’t work in traditional film than entire preplanned, pre-rendered scenes in CG, and sometimes costs force products to keep what they have rather than spend to fix it. Bolt may not be Up or Monsters vs. Aliens, but it doesn’t have to be more complicated than a girl and her dog (with an occasional super villain thrown in for good measure.)

(a two and a half skull recommendation out of four)

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