BOLT (2008). 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 this Best Animated Feature Film Oscar nominee 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.
The Blu-Ray edition (which was sent for review) includes an extra disc offering the feature film in standard DVD format, but the extras can only be accessed by those with Blu-Ray capabilities.
THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS (2008). Movies about the Holocaust seem to automatically earn R ratings, yet perhaps because it's based on a novel (by John Boyne) that was originally targeted to teen readers, this one escaped with a PG-13. That's the appropriate rating, I think, since children who can handle (and learn from) the material should not be denied the chance to see it. The film is told from the viewpoint of a young German lad who unwittingly has a front-row seat to the horrors instigated by the Nazi regime during World War II. Eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield, just perfect) is saddened when his father, a Nazi officer (David Thewlis), moves the family from Berlin to a remote country estate. Bored and lonely, Bruno defies his parents' orders and checks out what his mother (Vera Farmiga) has told him is a farm, a mysterious place where all the prisoners wear pajamas and billowing smoke from the chimneys constantly blackens the sky. There, he strikes up a friendship with Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a Jewish boy residing on the other side of the barbed wire fence. Credibility takes a serious beating in this picture, which is acceptable since this is clearly intended as a fable about how hatred can destroy even the most innocent among us. Bruno's naiveté provides the picture with its initial childlike charm, yet the movie is complicated enough to explore the conflicting emotions among the adult characters. But even in its lighter moments, it never downplays the horror of the situation, and the devastating ending is potent enough to affect even those viewers who write it off as nothing more than a sensationalist stunt.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Boyne and writer-director Mark Herman; five deleted scenes; and a 20-minute making-of featurette.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008). Chilling in more ways than one, this Swedish import uses its frozen environment to great advantage. The art-house counterpart to Twilight, this similarly shows the effect that a vampire can have on the social life of a school-age loner; here, the central kid is Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a 12-year-old boy who has no friends and who's the constant target of the school bully and his sycophants. One night while hanging around his apartment complex, he meets his new neighbor: Eli (Lina Leandersson), a mysterious 12-year-old girl. Eli tells Oskar right off the bat that they can't be friends; what she doesn't tell him is that it's because she's a vampire. But Eli is every bit as lonely as Oskar, so the two end up spending ample time together. Meanwhile, her empty stomach continues to rumble, and the other neighbors are looking mighty tasty. There have been pitiable movie vampires before, yet it's possible that little Eli is the most tragic of all. With no backstory on hand, we have no idea what led to her present situation, but it's poignant when she tells Oskar, "I'm 12. But I've been 12 for a long time." It's Eli's friendship with Oskar that redeems her, and helmer Tomas Alfredson, working from an astute screenplay by John Ajvide Linqvist (adapting his own novel), emphasizes this connection with a lovely directorial touch: During the gory climax, he focuses not on Eli's blood-splattered mouth but on her twinkling eyes, ones that wrinkle slightly as she stares approvingly at the best friend a vampire ever had.