In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.
Like Meet the Robinsons before it, Disney's 2008 release Bolt is a by-product of the regime change at the studio. The initial inklings of the film were devised and shepherded by Lilo & Stitch creator Chris Sanders under the working title American Dog. However, Pixar chief John Lasseter, who had been installed as the new head of feature animation, did not like the direction Sanders' work was going and had him replaced, scrapping much of the completed work on the film. The germ of the idea remained the same throughout the process but the final product feels more sleek than Sanders' initial treatment. The film that became Bolt tells the story of a famed television dog who becomes stranded and must find his way back home, all the while believing that he is still on television. Gone are the offbeat elements included by Sanders like a one-eyed cat and radioactive rabbits, as well as the more idiosyncratic animation style, pieces of which can still be found floating around online.
Compared to its two predecessors, Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, Bolt is a vast improvement in most every respect. First and foremost, the computer-generated animation is a major step forward. This is evident in two different ways in the first two scenes. The film opens with an idyllic prologue showing the young girl Penny picking a puppy out of a litter at an animal shelter. The scene is quiet, with soft golden lighting and some wonderful set design. The texture on the linoleum floor and the tangible presence of a window with reflections and beams of light streaming through it look more fully realized than anything from the last couple of pictures, both of which ascribed the clean, plastic sheen common to CGI to nearly every conceivable surface, be it wood or metal, man-made material or organic.
The scene following this muted meeting of canine and companion showcases the truly great action work of the animators. After a title card announces the passage of five years, we are thrust abruptly into a segment of the dynamic television show Bolt as if it were truly happening. Penny's father has been kidnapped and she and the dog must race to save him, thwarting helmeted henchmen armed with electric claws and ticking timebombs every step of the way. The sequence is the best action scene of any animated feature this side of Pixar's The Incredibles. It is a bravura achievement that marries evermore hysterical climaxes with fluid editing and a clear sense of space. Now, if the events that transpire in this snippet of the television occurred weekly, Bolt would be the most expensive show in the history of the medium. Helicopters explode, trucks are flipped on their sides, and sonic booms tear across the desert destroying everything in their path.
The story of how Bolt finds himself alone in the world for the first time, away from the lights and make-up of Hollywood, and how he comes to terms with his ordinariness, is told in a crisp style that flows much more effortlessly than many of its cartoon contemporaries. There are some nice little touches along the way, as we see Bolt learning how to become a regular dog, begging for scraps and enjoying the simple comforts of wind on his face. His journey back home is punctuated with some more clever action pieces that subvert and contort the tropes seen in the bombastic Hollywood opening. Midway through the film, an escape from an animal shelter also ends with a gigantic fireball but is is achieved by all-together different means than the shameless blockbuster production in the beginning.
Accompanying Bolt on his cross-country journey are two animal sidekicks, a skeptical, street-smart alley cat named Mittens and a hamster with a severe case of television addiction named Rhino. Mittens is voiced by the comedienne Susie Essman as a bit of a PG-rated version of her character Susie on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Mittens is easily the best character in the film and Essman lends some surprisingly serious emotional weight to the film's most satisfying backstory. It is unfortunate that she and the audience are saddled with Rhino, who cancels out most of Mittens' excellence by being the most annoying character in the entire feature. The character is a brash fanboy who fawns over Bolt and uses the word "awesome" in nearly every sentence. Rhino spends the whole movie so amped up that there is no room in his character for nuance or reflection. It is interesting to note that while the movie hinges on Bolt being reunited with Penny, and Mittens is emotionally scarred from being left behind by her "people" to fend for herself, Rhino has no compunction when he decides to abandon his owner to set off of a two thousand-mile journey that ends with him becoming adopted by Penny. One pictures the poor old woman who lost her hamster crying at night to herself in the trailer park.
The other peripheral characters are tedious as well, with Penny's stereotypically sleazy Hollywood agent vying for vexatious supremacy with a legion of localized pigeons who adopt the most obvious, exaggerated mannerisms of their chosen town, be it New York, Los Angeles, or the South. The sunbaked birds native to Southern California try to pitch Bolt their "original" idea for the show (aliens--which may be a sly commentary on the preponderence of science-fiction elements creeping into so many Disney features over the last decade) and at one point yell the choice phrase "holler back" in their most stoned drawl. These contemporary sign posts littered throughout the script cheapen the story and resign the production to an unfortunate time capsule.
Curiously enough, Bolt contains more product placement than any Disney film since Oliver & Company, coincidentally the studio's last animated film to star a dog. The previous film shilled for Ryder trucks among other things, but the company appears to have switched allegiances to U-Haul sometime in the ensuing decades. Also, a less-than-flattering sign of the then-still-fresh Disney/Pixar merger can be seen in the film's use of the Apple logo on all computer products. Steve Jobs negotiated his upstart company a multi-billion dollar payday and as a bonus got to plaster the logo of his day job anywhere he damn well pleased.
For all of its growing pains and corporate compromises, Bolt is an entertaining film with its fair share of likable qualities. The often stellar animation and solid story are positive signs for a wayward company trying to find its footing in a new cinematic landscape. The film successfully works a clever conceit around a decently devised emotional core. Like a dog, the film can be amusing and comforting, but loud and obnoxious as well. One can bemoan the lost opportunity and missing charm of a personal, left-field production but sometimes what one needs is simple reassurance. Bolt provides the sort of enjoyments one may look for when seeking out a Disney picture. The film is bereft of surprises but it is a decent, reliable companion.