Tuesday, November 25, 2008
His Master's Voice
We bought the DVD of Wall-E the other day, and found myself newly irritated by all the hard-to-avoid advertising that must be waded through or maneuvered around every time the disc goes in the player. Just like all the ads which one must now sit through in the theater before watching the film for which one paid admission, I hate being held captive to various corporations' capital appetites. (Movie previews themselves I can tolerate; I mean, we're there to see a movie, so it's natural to assume we're interested in what other movies are in the pipeline. How else might we find out? But Pepsi or Nintendo? No.) Well, one of the previews was for Disney's upcoming limited-duration release of the classic cartoon Pinocchio.
Even just that preview was an eye-opener about how far animation has come in the intervening 70 years. Everything about Pinocchio screamed "antique" in a way I hadn't expected. The old Disney hallmarks--doe eyes and multi-plane 3-D depth perception effects and storybook architecture, conventions followed to this day--were all there, but the characters and their lines and their voices and the music; all these things betrayed their origins in a time now long gone. I used to think that Looney Tunes had aged quite well, as they didn't rely much on era-specific gags or other hallmarks of the age from which they sprang (especially with, say, Road Runner or Foghorn Leghorn). But the more time passes, the more corded phones or phones with dials or cars with their spare tires on their trunks or workmen pounding hot rivets appear anachronistic.
Seeing previews for Pinocchio and Wall-E back to back drives home this point forcefully.
All this by way of introduction. The focus of this review is my recent viewing of Disney's latest cartoon, Bolt (my wife was breathlessly watching Twilight, and I just wasn't quite up to it. I have since seen that too, though the world probably needs my Twilight review even less than it needs my views on Bolt). Anyone remotely interested in Bolt will not have been able to avoid the previews, so the story is probably already well-known: Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is the canine star of his own action TV show where he, equipped with super powers, and his humanoid owner / companion Penny (voiced by current Disney It-Girl Miley Cyrus) get in adventures and save the world each week with the help of a massive special effects department. Bolt, who has never been off the TV show set, believes that his amazing feats are actually his accomplishments. So when the producers decide to prop up their sagging ratings by employing a cliff-hanger where Penny is left in peril at the end of one show to be continued in the next, Bolt is highly anxious and breaks out of his confines to try and resolve the situation. And of course, once he's off the set he comes face-to-face with his rather pathetic limitations as (in a neat reverse of Pinocchio) a "real" dog.
This gives us the setup, and the rest of the movie involves his actual adventure in finding his way back to Penny (whose love for him is the one real thing on the TV show). Along the way, buddy-movie-style, he picks up a couple of cohorts: a street cat named Mittens (voiced by TV actress Susie Essman) who knows nothing about the TV Bolt and who helps him, albeit reluctantly, to come to grips with his lack of superpowers, and a hilarious hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton) who knows the TV Bolt and refuses to lose his faith.
It's an excellent setup for a rollicking cartoon, and it makes for a satisfying 90 minutes' expenditure of time. The voices are all spot-on, especially the three animals. I was absolutely floored by the rotund and irrepressible Rhino in his clear plastic Habitrail ball; he is the comic center of the show. His thrill at being involved in what he insists is yet another Bolt TV adventure is infectious, and he steals every scene he's in. With Rhino as the true believer and Mittens the cat the street-wise cynic, the trio has balance, and they all play a role in helping Bolt complete his mission and in the process everybody grows a little wiser.
In looking back at Pinocchio, Bolt too makes the case for how far we've come with animation. Portions of Bolt, especially the sets and backdrops, are photo-realistic, and lighting and texturing have reached a near-perfect state. As with many other recent animated films, only the design of the characters and a few stylized things--cars or Bolt's star trailer, say--keep us strategically in the cartoon world. But where Pinocchio was strenuously G-rated, our demand for greater fireworks and snappier dialog gives Bolt a spicier PG rating. Bolt's adventure puts him and his crew through some pretty hair-raising scenarios, and young kids will need a spot of adult guidance to help them differentiate between cartoon violence and the real world. Adults can be thankful for the difference, though, as this certainly seems a more tolerable movie to watch a thousand times than The Little Mermaid III.
I only refrain from giving it the highest marks because it lacks that little extra spark which most recent Pixar films have managed. The Incredibles and Ratatouille and Wall-E have all come together as more than the sum of their parts, as works of film art. Bolt is a good and worthy film. but not a great one.