John Lasseter didn't have it easy when he arrived at the Disney Studio. First, Meet the Robinsons needed a complete overhaul before it could be released in theatres, and then the following film was even more troubled. Bolt was first titled American Dog and it was to be the next project by director Chris Sanders, who co-directed the highly acclaimed Lilo & Stitch (one of the few popular films from the previous era). However, problems in the production led to the removal of Sanders from the director's chair (after which he left Disney and went to DreamWorks) and the team of Chris Williams and Byron Howard taking over. The film was completed in 18 months and, against all odds, it was warmly received and represented another step in the right direction for the studio.
Here's a brief synopsis: Bolt is a dog who believes he's a super-powered dog with the important mission of protecting his owner, Penny, from any danger. What Bolt doesn't know is that his whole life is fabricated; in reality, he's the canine star of a TV show. When something goes wrong though, Bolt escapes from the studio lot and ends up in New York. Now he has to return to Hollywood and to Penny, while discovering who he really is and learning how to be a real dog, with the help of a cynical cat named Mittens and a hyperactive hamster named Rhino. That's the essence of the story and as simple as it may sound, there are little details and moments that help the story become much more complete and satisfying.
I have to say that one of the best scenes in Bolt is the first one. When the movie begins, you have this elaborate sequence where Bolt and Penny have to escape from the evil Dr. Calico. The scene plays very well, with great action and even some fine humour. However, after the scene is over, the film shows you that this is only a TV show, and I can't help but feel a little bit disappointed every time I see it. (A movie about a super dog could've been great, and a little part of me wishes they could've gone that way - but that would have required a completely different premise from what's offered here and the finished product is, regardless, a good one.) Another particular highlight is the scene after the beginning, where everyone at the studio is watching the dailies and a studio executive enters and starts meddling and imposing new things. Every time I see that scene, I can't help but imagine it was a stab from the filmmakers at the previous era of Disney Animation, where executives and their policies almost ruined the studio. That scene makes me smile every time.
After Bolt's escape, the film turns into a road film reminiscent of films like Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, where two dogs and one cat get lost and journey back home. Here though, in Bolt's case, it's not just the trip that's important, but also Bolt's discovery that he's not a super dog, and his rediscovery of what it means to be a real, ordinary dog. The heart of the film is the relationship between Bolt and Mittens, a relationship that begins in conflict and develops into a true friendship, where both of them learn from each other and learn to trust one another. Like Meet the Robinsons before it, the characters in Bolt are very well constructed and every conflict they have feels real and heartfelt. Mittens is the real standout here, going from a cynical, carefree cat to a loyal friend. She has issues of her own and is afraid of opening herself to hurt again; we can see her struggle to finally give in to a new friendship. Rhino is mostly comic relief but is also very well constructed so he doesn't come across as annoying - he has many great scenes that will delight everyone. The relationship between Penny and Bolt is also an emotional highlight; it feels very real and will tug the strings of dog-lovers/owners.
The music by John Powell is very nicely done too and serves the picture well, but the real standout is the "Barking at the Moon" sequence where Bolt learns how to be a real dog while travelling back to Penny. Good Disney films have always got one particular "show-stopper" scene, where everything mixes perfectly, and in Bolt this is that scene - everything comes off beautifully and you can't help but smile throughout it. The song, composed and sung by Jenny Lewis, is the perfect complement for such a beautiful scene. The cast is great with Travolta, Essman and Walton delivering excellent performances in their respective characters. Even Miley Cyrus, who's part of the cast mostly as a marketing strategy, sounds genuine as Bolt's beloved owner.
If there's one problem with the film, it's its over-familiar elements, ones that we've seen in many films before. Aside from comparisons with The Truman Show and Homeward Bound, one can't help but think Bolt has a similar conflict to Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, and Mittens has very similar issues to Jessie in Toy Story 2. Those beloved Pixar productions dealt with the themes of self-discovery and abandonment superbly and Bolt can't help but suffer from the inevitable comparisons. Still, Bolt has enough original moments and strong personalities to pull off its most derivative elements.
The animation is beautiful and a step up from Meet the Robinsons. While the human characters are still a little rough around the edges, the animals and backgrounds have a superb design and the overall aesthetic of the film is simply gorgeous.
Bolt began as another troubled production at the studio, but ended up as another triumph. While a little derivative, it more that compensates for its repetitive elements with great characters and wonderful touching moments that will make everyone enjoy the film immensely. Bolt represented another strong entry in the new era at a studio that was determined to build its way to the top again. Rating: 4/5.
Next Week - Animated Classic #49 Review: The Princess and the Frog (2009).