Saturday, 7 February 2009

BOLT FROM THE BLUE

Hands up who owned a View-Master 3D viewer as a kid? That bright red device with a trigger on the side into which you popped View-Master discs (three reels of seven views) that were your personal enchanted windows onto worlds of three-dimensional wonders...

I never bothered with the geographical or natural history sets (except for the ones about Disneyland and dinosaurs!) but I had every one of the Disney film sets which were, for the most part, scenes from the animated features recreated as models and then photographed in 3D.

I found myself thinking about these childhood treasures for the first time in years this week when I saw a preview of Bolt, the new Disney feature film being shown in selected venues in 3D.

Bolt is a digitally animated film and the 3D is superb. There are hardly any of the predictable poke-your-eye-out effects (which is probably just as well since most people won't see the film in 3D) but, instead, it is used to create an immersive experience that takes you right into an environment in a way that I can really only describe as being like an animated View-Master...

Click on images to enlarge

There's a whole generation now that has grown up watching the Shrek, Ice Age and Madagascar franchises that have no concept of animation as being anything other than a CGI-created medium and it's probably only because I still hanker after the old days of hand-drawn animation that I have persistent reservations about digital animation - in particular the often uncomfortable fit of cartoony, plastic people inhabiting a super-photo realistic world.

Anyway, to the story...

Bolt is the tale of a dog (familiar Disney territory when one remembers Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians and Oliver & Co) but Bolt is nor ordinary dog. Bolt is remarkable Rin Tin Tin-type mutt with the powers of a comic book superhero.

We discover Bolt's exceptional talents from the film's turbo-charged, roller coaster of an opening sequence in which he and his human, Penny, attempt to rescue Penny's father from the clutches of Dr Calico, an evil, cat-loving, cat-eyed scientist with a penchant for world-domination.


This, however, is not the whole picture: the truth is that Bolt (superbly voiced by John Travolta) is the eponymous star of TV programme who - rather like the hero of The Truman Show - is unaware of the fact that his adventures are being filmed. And he certainly doesn't know that his supposed super-powers are actually nothing more than craftily-timed special effects.

When, through a series of mishaps, Bolt is accidentally shipped from Hollywood to New York and finds himself on the lose in the Big Apple, he is on a collision course with reality. Hooking up with a jaded alley cat called Mittens (whom he believes to be one of Dr Calico's cohorts), Bolt sets out to cross the States from East Coast to West Coast to find Penny.


At 103 minutes, it's a long journey (the one thing today's animators haven't learned from the forebears is an understanding of the brevity of wit!) but it's got any number of dramatic and comedic high spots - especially once Bolt and Mittens are joined by an overweight hamster called Rhino who is a TV addict and Bolt's number one fan. It's an engaging twist in the tail that as Bolt reluctantly comes to realise that he doesn't have any of the powers he thought he had, he meets a character who believes totally in the Bolt legend.


Bolt is securely at home in the Disney tradition of strong story and characterisations with cute animals and a touch of sentiment; and yet, after the screening, my critic colleagues were asking one another, in a somewhat puzzled manner, whether the film was a Disney or a Pixar picture. Their confusion was understandable: the opening credits feature both the Pixar and Disney logos and film's Executive Producer is Pixar's John (Toy Story) Lasseter.

Back in 1983, Lasseter was a lowly animator at the Mouse Factory (working on Mickey's Christmas Carol) but, whilst he was to lose that job, he was destined for greater things. A year later, he had made his first computer animated short at LucasFilms and the next thing we all knew he emerged as the founding genius behind Pixar and was turning out brilliant short films that led to the feature-length Toy Story and its successors Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, Cars and WALL.E.

Repeatedly, John Lasseter (right with a larger-than-life Bolt) was being referred to as 'the new Walt Disney' and sure enough when, in 2006, Disney bought Pixar, he became Chief Creative Officer not just of Pixar but also of the Walt Disney Animation studio.

So, the tyro who'd been sacked from Disney was now back as the man who calls the shots on the future of Disney animated films.

As a result - despite the fact that Bolt carries a Walt Disney Animation Studio title card featuring Mickey Mouse in his 1928 Disney debut, Steamboat Willie - the film has the feel and sensibility of a Pixar film: the setting, unlike most Disney fairy-tale/fantasy classics, is today's world (and specifically America), there is a witty, lightly ironic and occasionally self-referential script, the ubiquitous (and forgettable) voice-over song half-way through - though not, on this occasion, by Randy Newman - and the plot, when you boil it down, is essentially Toy Story with dogs and cats.


All this has to be due to the Lasseter influence, but whilst it is good to see a first-rate Disney animated film, the fact that Disney animators have succeeded in creating a digitally animated film in the Pixar style is, in itself, no guarantee that we are about to experience a renaissance of Disney animation.

As I watched the two-dimensionally animated end-titles (in, bizarrely, 3D) I couldn't help thinking that the proof that Lasseter has succeeded in changing the fortunes of the greatest studio in the history of animation will only be confirmed when we see the release of next year's traditionally, 2D animated fairy-story, The Princess and the Frog.

Until then, whatever its parentage, Bolt is well worth seeing - especially if you can get to view it in 3D - and it's by far the best animated feature of the year, which is why it's been nominated for an Oscar. Of course, everyone expects WALL.E to take the Academy Award, but if only Bolt could beat the system and run off with the golden man then it could only enhance his Superdog status!


8 comments:

Andy J. Latham said...

You know what? I have been getting so excited ever since I heard about 'The Princess and the Frog', and even moreso when we entered 2009 - the same year it is to be released. Of course I hadn't bargained for the fact that I live in the UK and have to wait a full two months more, pushing it to 2010! Dognammit!!

Still, I hope for the sake of traditional animation that it is a hit. The new Goofy short was fantastic, and it would be so nice to have a feature bring back the same classic Disney atmosphere.

Bitter Animator said...

When it comes to the Oscar nominations, I was surprised not to see Waltz With Bashir in there. This is something that relates to your previous post and a comment in there - is the Best Animated Feature category in the Oscars simply a mask for Best Children's Film?

The Oscars don't split categories by genre. That's not what it's doing with animation because animation is a medium, not a genre. And, yet, looking at the nominations and, often, the previous winners, the Best Animated Film category seems to equal Children's Film.

So why Waltz With Bashir is good enough to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and not Best Animated is a mystery to me. Whether it happened with great respect for the film (as in, well, it's a real movie, not just a children's cartoon) or a lack of (it can hardly compete with a Pixar film, can it?), it seems wrong to me.

And it strengthens the idea that animated=for kids.

Bolt looks great to me but it's one of those ones where I see the concept art and really wish it was being done in 2D. I won't know until I see it but some films were just meant to be in two dimensions. I would argue The Incredibles was definitely one of those films.

Of course, many would disagree but that's why I'd have to argue rather than just propose, or state, or whisper under my breath.

Brian Sibley said...

ANDY - The wait in the UK for animated films is (and always been) tiresome. It is caused, as I understand it, by the fact that UK releases are held up while the rest of the European versions are dubbed into their respective languages. Since there's time, I don't know why they don't dub our release into English while they're at it! ;-)

I hear mixed reports about The Princess and the Frog on the grapevine including a disturbing rumour that a highly-rated Pixar director who saw some early footage expressed the opinion that the best thing that could be done to fix it was to "start over". If the Disney animators could have even a moderate hit (as it did many years ago with Basil the Great Mouse Detective) it could be the beginning of a revival of fortunes...

BA - I couldn't agree more. It's not always the case that 'serious'/'adult' animation are overlooked - last year, Persepolis was nominated (although, of course, Ratatouille won), and in the Short Film category many films (such as John Canemaker's The Moon and the Son which I mentioned yesterday) have bucked the system...

For those who haven't seen it, here's a YouTube link to the trailer for Waltz with Bashir - a film, as BA rightly says, that demonstrates that animation can be much more than simply 'cartoons'.

Of course, on a wider issue about the Oscars, one could ask why so many hugely successful, critically-acclaimed animated features have been denied even a nomination for Best Picture (the only one to ever be so nominated was Beauty and the Beast in 1991) and yet several films with Best Foreign Film nominations have also received Best Picture nominations...

I think we both agree about the 2D (drawn) Vs 3D (digital) animation argument (and you are dead right about The Incredibles), but I think there is a now a perception that 2D is old fashioned and that if an animated film doesn't look like a Pixar/Dreamworks CGI animated film, it's somehow just not cool...

Watching Bolt, as much as I enjoyed the film, I couldn't help thinking how ineffectual and unconvincing the animation of the human figures were and how much the animators could learn from watching, for example, Vlad Tytla's animation of Stromboli in Pinocchio which was made almost 60 years ago...

Boll Weavil said...

I'm a viewer and don't come down on any side of the fence about what is good animation and what isn't but whether I see the opening scene from Pinnochio or the arrival of Buzz Lightyear, I know I'm in the presence of cinematic genius and that is what I came for !
CRASAG : That grainy extract of a film that hasn't been released yet which somehow appears on You Tube

Andy J. Latham said...

Well those rumours are indeed disturbing, although when did you last here a rumour about anything that wasn't?!

While the great minds at Pixar have given us many good things, there are some opinions floating round at the studio that are beyond me. Their devotion to 'Cars' being a prime example. Why are we being force-fed motoring adventures in feature-length and short form? I actually saw Bolt today, and while I really enjoyed the film, I was bored to tears by YET ANOTHER 'Cars' short. I'd argue that Cars has been the weakest Pixar film, yet has spawned so many continuations, including the upcoming sequel. Why? I work with about 40 animators and not one of them liked the movie.

Brian Sibley said...

BOLL - Your view (as a viewer) is, in the end, the one that counts...

ANDY - I also don't get Cars, but It was a highly personal project of John Lasseter's, so there is your answer...

David Weeks said...

Story first every time. There have been films made be they animated or live action in which the technical aspects have not been cutting edge. However, if the story is strong we, the viewer, will be swept along. There have been technically wizard films, but in the end they are only technically exciting and remain, by and large, vacuous. Story, every time, comes first.

INESSIG: The essential ingredient to making a film a great film.

Matt J said...

I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a CARS fan (just don't hold it against me!). Good review of BOLT-you've convinced me to check it out in 3-D. I'm REALLY looking forward to seeing CORALINE projected this way too.
Another YEAR for Princess & Frog? Zzzzzzzzzzzz. . .