I talked a bit about how Disney bought Pixar in early 2006 in my previous post. Although John Lasseter did help improve Meet The Robinsons a bit, he took over the entire animation department a bit too late in production to make it a good movie. Bolt is the first Disney Animation Studios movie to release with Lasseter’s full supervision. And it shows.
Bolt released in November of 2008 to a generally positive critical reception. It earned 89% on Rotten Tomatoes, the same number as both Tangled and Frozen. Most critics agreed that it’s a fun and pleasant experience with strong visuals and likeable characters. It opened in third place between the two major film releases, Quantum of Solace (released less than a month before) and Twilight (released the same week), but actually performed better in its second weekend and bumped up to second place. It ended up earning $310 million on a $150 million budget, and it sold very well on home video on top of that.
Although it didn’t win any Best Animated Feature type awards (usually losing to either WALL-E or Kung-Fu Panda), it received a number of nominations. It spawned a video game across all platforms around at the time, focusing on Bolt’s TV life, and also spawned a couple of short film sequels. Bolt is often credited as the beginning of the Disney Revival period that brought us mega hits like Tangled, Big Hero 6, Frozen and Zootopia.
The movie began its development under the title American Dog, with Chris Sanders directing it. Chris Sanders had previously directed Lilo & Stitch, and would move on to direct How To Train Your Dragon. It was about a dog named Henry who again lived on a TV show, but one day found himself stranded in the Nevada desert. Along with a one-eyed cat and a giant, radioactive rabbit, he tried to find a new home while still thinking he was on TV. They held several test screenings in front of Pixar’s creative team, but when Lasseter gave Sanders notes on how to improve the movie, he didn’t budge.
To help improve the movie, they sacked Chris Sanders and hired on two co-replacement directors, Chris Williams and Byron Howard. Both of them had previously acted as animators or story writers/supervisors for movies like Mulan, Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear (as well as a few more movies each), but Bolt was the directorial debut for both of them. William would later help with storyboarding Frozen and he co-directed Big Hero 6. Howard has since directed Tangled, Zootopia and is attached for the currently untitled 60th animated feature. Needless to say, Disney was satisfied with their performance.
The animation in this movie is really good. The visual style is based on the paintings of Edward Hopper. They used a new technology in Non-Photorealistic Rendering (NPR) to give the movie its appearance, a method later used in Tangled. It allowed them to scan real life paintings and post them in the digital world, making this and Tangled a reverse hybrid of traditional and computer animation.
Bolt is kind of like The Truman Show with dogs. What that means is that its star character, Bolt, lives in a TV show. He doesn’t know he lives in the TV show, but in a sense that actually helps his performance as an actor dog. The TV show is basically Bolt, a superpowered dog, is working with Penny, his 12-year-old owner. They’re a spy team running sneaking around enemy bases, going on car chases and taking on armies. The trick is, all of Bolt’s superpowers are special effects, which Bolt doesn’t understand. When Penny is apparently kidnapped (for a cliffhanger ending of an episode), a distressed Bolt escapes his trailer and knocks himself out when he tries to jump through a window. He falls into a box unconscious and is unintentionally shipped across the country.
The rest of the movie is a mix of Bolt trying to find Penny again and slowly learning that he doesn’t have superpowers. It’s a brilliant idea for a movie, and they play around with the concept quite a bit. John Travolta voices Bolt, and he helps make Bolt a very likeable character. He’s brave and overly confident at first, but he’s also kind. When he starts learning the truth, Travolta nails the pain and sense of betrayal that Bolt is feeling. Penny is voiced by Miley Cyrus, making her voice actress debut. She’s also pretty good, even if she’s not always in the movie very much.
Other characters include Mittens, a street cat who helps Bolt find his way back to Hollywood and teach him how to be a real dog. Their interactions are hilarious at first, with Bolt thinking she’s working for the evil Dr. Calico (voiced by the one and only Malcom McDowell). The cat plays around at first, partly because Bolt put her on a leash, but as time goes on she also teaches Bolt how to do normal dog things, like begging and playing fetch. They grow very close as friends.
There’s also Rhino the hamster, who’s a huge fan of the Bolt TV show and sometimes believes that Bolt is a superhero. Even though he spends most of the movie in a hamster ball, he still proves himself useful from time to time. The funny thing is, Rhino is actually voiced by a man who’s usually an animator or a storyboard artist for Disney, yet he received a nomination for his performance at the Annie Awards.
The action is a lot of fun. The opening epic set piece where Bolt unleashes himself in multiple ways is a really entertaining car chase. You know it’s fake before the movie even reveals that the whole thing was for a TV show, but it’s still exciting. As Bolt’s real world adventure goes on, he tries to interrogate a few animals to figure out what’s going on. There are these pidgins who think they recognize him, but can’t recall where they saw him from. There’s a real world action scene where Bolt, Mittens and Rhino jump onto a moving train that’s kind of intense. And even though Bolt’s realized that he’s just a normal dog, a bad situation forces him to rescue Penny in real life anyway. It’s a great closing moment that shows him using some of the tricks he’s learned in real life that also tie into his abilities in the show in clever ways.
As a whole, this is just a fun and likeable movie. It’s not groundbreaking by any means, and it feels like it could have gone further with the humour to make it just a touch better, but I’m really glad I watched it. Disney does seem to have a good track record with animated movies about dogs, and this keeps that track record going. If a movie about a dog who thinks he’s a superhero trying to find his master in the real world sounds interesting to you, then you should watch this.
Next up is Princess and the Frog, the last of 7 movies in a row I’ve never seen before. After that, it’s Tangled, Disney’s 50th animated feature. I’m probably going to split that into two posts, because it also might just have the most complex backstory of any animated movie in history. After that, it’s Winnie the Pooh. Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh are the two last traditionally animated movies that Disney Animation Studios has ever done. Although I don’t really care whether a movie is traditionally animated or CGI, I miss traditional animation. But anyway, there are now 8 movies to go.