Disney Canon: Bolt (2008)

Bolt

I didn’t know about this at the time, but here’s the interesting behind-the-scenes story of Bolt’s production. The movie was originally titled American Dog, and was going to be Chris Sanders’s -and co-director Dean DeBlois’s- follow-up to their successful Lilo & StitchIt was reportedly the story of a Hollywood dog named Henry, who accidentally finds himself in the middle of the Nevada desert, where he learns the values of small-town living. Rumor has it John Lasseter wan’t a big fan of Lilo & Stitch, and so when he became chief creative officer at Disney, he wasn’t very happy with Sanders’s new project. Just like he did with Meet the Robinsonshe gave bunch of notes on what should be changed about American Dog, including the Southwest setting, which was deemed too similar that of the movie Lasseter himself was directing: Cars

Needless to say Sanders wasn’t very pleased with these demands. He was crafting a movie full of weirdly comedic characters with a Stitch-like sensibility, and here was Lasseter -a man who had been vocal about disliking his most successful movie- telling him to make it sweeter and softer. I guess they fought, because Sanders decided to take his business elsewhere. Things ended up pretty good for Sanders, who went on to work at Dreamworks, where he directed How to Train Your Dragonwhich was not only a huge hit, but still the best movie in that studio’s filmography. As for American Dog, it got a couple new directors -Byron Howard (who went on to direct Tangled) and Chris Williams (who is directing the upcoming Big Hero 6)- as well as a new title: Bolt. 

Like I said before, I was pretty much completely ignorant about the movie’s history when I first saw it. The trailers and promotion weren’t very promising. I was already disappointed by the direction Disney had taken at the time, and Bolt didn’t look much better. A movie about a talking dog starring the celebrity voices of John Travolta and Miley Cyrus, coming at the end of a decade so plagued with mediocre animated movies starring talking animals, wasn’t something I was particularly looking forward to. But the reviews were largely positive, and since that year’s Kung Fu Panda had proved that funny animals could be done right, I was willing to give Bolt a try… And really liked it!

This is the first time I watch the movie since late 2008, and almost six years after the fact, I can’t help but look at Bolt in quite a different way. First of all is the fact that I now know how Disney would get its critical and commercial groove back in the following years (Bolt was by all accounts a hit, but nothing compared to some of the movies that followed it, especially last year’s Frozenwhich just unseated The Lion King as the company’s highest grossing hit). This shouldn’t really affect my appreciation of the movie, but a lot of my affection for it had to do with how surprisingly gratifying it was to see Disney make a really good movie again. I didn’t absolutely love it back then, and I still like it now, but a few years of hindsight make the movie’s successes and shortcomings more apparent.

So, in its final form, Bolt could easily be described as The Truman Show meets The Incredible JourneyOur protagonist is the eponymous dog (John Travolta), who is also the start of a fictional television show in which he fights characters such as evil spies in order to get his owner Penny (Miley Cyrus), the daughter of an important scientist, out of danger. In some sort of bizarre method acting technique, the producers of the show keep Bolt thinking he is actually living the show, which has understandably made him quite paranoid. So much so that, one night, thinking his girl is in danger, he escapes and somehow ends up alone in New York City. Eventually, he teams up with a cat named Mittens (Sussie Essman) and a hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton), who also happens to be his biggest fan, as he makes his way back to Penny.

The weakest part of Bolt is everything that has to do with the Hollywood satire. It is, frankly, not very original in its portrayal of show business as incredibly frivolous and money-oriented, and it certainly doesn’t help that this part focuses on the humans, which are, by far, the worst realized characters in the movie. There isn’t much to their personality (insensitive agent, hard-ass network executive), their design isn’t particularly stylish, and the character animation is very simplistic, almost static. Most of it also relies on insider jokes about Los Angeles culture, which aren’t necessarily bad, but don’t feel particularly fresh or funny. Take, for example, this scene featuring a group of typically Californian pigeons trying to pitch a movie idea to our hero.

The curious thing about this scene is that, while not being particularly funny, it does showcase one of Bolt‘s biggest strengths. Animation is clearly the best possible medium for “animal acting”, thanks for it giving the possibility of total control over what are usually incredibly difficult creatures to train, and yet, we so rarely see animated movies that actually animate animals as such. Great examples of delicately and accurately animated cartoon animals include Bambi and Lady and the Trampbut especially nowadays, it’s very difficult to find that amount of detail put into the way animals move in our animated movies.

Bolt has carefully animated animals to spare. Just in that clip, you can notice the heads of the pigeons realistically moving back and forth. The best job, however, is done in the lead characters: Bolt and Mittens. This is crucial to the success of the movie, since Bolt’s character arch is basically him getting to know what it’s like to be a normal dog. It sounds a little ridiculous that one would make a movie whose emotional core essentially deals with the nature of being a dog. Surely there’s room to make a reading about this dog identity crisis standing in for letting children be children or some such message, but Bolt is surely specific enough in its canine understanding, that one can’t help but feel moved by the joy Bolt gets out of understanding the simple pleasures that come from feeling the wind in his face, or chasing a stick.

Beyond the protagonist’s self-discovery, the heart of the movie lies in the relationship that develops between him and Mittens. Actually, it’s this street smart cat, that ends up being the star of the movie for me. You see, for long stretches of the film, especially the first half, when Bolt is in a Buzz Lightyear-like state of not realizing he is living a fantasy, he come across as not very likable, and also kind of ridiculous. It’s the cleverness and desperation for surviving her encounter with this mad dog that makes Mittens the most relatable character of the movie. Not to mention her amusingly sarcastic attitude. I am also a sucker for the design of the character, with her incredibly thin body (appropriate for a cat who must fight every day for her food) and her big, green, eyes.

I also get a pretty big kick out of Disney playing with the fact that the studio has, for so long, been so much more sympathetic to dogs than it has been to cats. And although the movie has Bolt’s name, and it begins and ends with his relationship with Penny, it’s really Mittens journey from house cat to street cat to house cat again that excites me the most.

Next Time: Disney went back to both traditional animation and fairy tale heroines with The Princess and the Frog

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