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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Jan. 21

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BOLT In recent years, Disney plus Pixar has led to some terrific animated features, but Disney minus Pixar has led to yearnings to locate the nearest auditorium exit. Bolt is straight-up Disney, which would be worrisome if it wasn't for the fact that Pixar guru John Lasseter has been handed the keys to the studio's entire animation department. So while Bolt isn't a Pixar production, it falls under the auspices of Lasseter (billed here as executive producer), and that might possibly be the reason this fast-paced confection is far better than such studio sourballs as Chicken Little and Treasure Planet. But make no mistake: This is still a long way from the giddy heights of the Pixar pack. It mixes the speed of an ADD Nickelodeon toon project with narrative elements from The Incredible Journey, as Bolt (voiced by John Travolta), a canine who believes he really possesses the superpowers he employs on his hit TV series, gets separated from his owner/co-star Penny (Miley Cyrus) and ends up crossing the country in search of her. It's entertaining while it lasts but dissipates from memory the moment it's over, a condition predicated on the fact that neither the noble, stiff Bolt nor the typical toon preteen Penny are especially dynamic characters. There are some clever inside-Hollywood touches, but the lack of any real tension means that the scripters are ultimately forced to turn to a burning building to serve as the "villain" of the piece. Still, the visual design is inventive, and kids and adults alike are sure to love Rhino (Mark Walton), a portly hamster always on the go in his plastic ball. Whenever he's on screen, you can be sure he keeps the movie rolling. **1/2

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON David Fincher's groveling Oscar bait is a desperate lunge by a normally exciting genre filmmaker to earn some year-end accolades by helming An Important Movie With Life-Affirming Values. But when faced with results such as this, I'll take the comparative cheap thrills of Fincher's Seven or Zodiac any day of the week. Except for one bravura sequence near the end of the picture – a beautifully staged scene of a life winding down – Button is curiously listless, with all of its passion apparently expended on its technical feats. Loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this deals with Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), who's born as an 80-year-old man but becomes gradually younger as time passes. Like his cinematic soulmate Forrest Gump, Benjamin leads a rich and varied life, although his heart always belongs to Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who, like Forrest's Jenny, is a callow free spirit who doesn't realize the depths of her fondness for Benjamin until it's almost too late. Benjamin Button is primarily a passive character, and he's in turn played by Pitt in a passive manner. It's not the actor's finest work, as he's upstaged by his own makeup as well as the CGI trickery that (in old-age mode) turns him into a diminutive figure. Even Pitt is finally freed from the movie magic and allowed to look like himself, it's to no avail, largely because he and Blanchett have no chemistry together. As for the movie's themes, they're basically a series of homilies about the beauty of life and how we shouldn't waste a single precious moment of it. Point taken: I won't spend another second reflecting on this motionless motion picture. **

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL The 1951 version still holds up beautifully as a science fiction classic, but I'll refrain from taking the usual route of using a cherished original to bludgeon a shoddy remake to death. In the case of the new Day, there's no need: The film mostly fails on its own terms. This feels less like a remake of that 50s gem than a companion piece to An Inconvenient Truth – the difference is that Al Gore was a lot more fun to watch than Keanu Reeves, who's so stiff here that you fear rigor mortis will set in before the movie wraps. Reeves plays Klaatu, an alien who arrives on Earth with the intention of – what exactly? Initially, he asks to speak to our planet's leaders (as the original's Klaatu did), presumably to provide them with an ultimatum: Shape up or face the dire consequences. But the next minute, he's already settled on wiping out the human race, because all he knows about us is that we love war and violence and death. It actually comes as a shock to him that humans, as repped by sympathetic scientist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) and her stepson Jacob (a self-conscious Jaden Smith), are capable of love and affection and devotion. I dunno, you'd think a visitor from a far advanced civilization would have done a little bit of intergalactic homework before stopping by – at least a cursory glance through the best-selling Earthling Customs for Dummies or something. This inconsequential production strives to seem important by addressing humankind's destruction of our natural resources and intrinsic need to pollute the planet. And yet one of the movie's key scenes is set inside a McDonald's. Nice. *1/2

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