Film Review: Bolt (2008)

*All reviews contain spoilers*
Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from Disneyscreencaps.com.

 

Cast
Diedrich Bader – Veteran Cat
Jeff Bennett – Lloyd (gas station attendant)
Todd Cummings – Joey (a NY pigeon)
Miley Cyrus – Penny
Grey DeLisle – Penny’s Mom
John DiMaggio – Saul (a NY pigeon)
Lino DiSalvo – Vinnie (head of the NY pigeons)
Sean Donnellan – Penny’s TV Dad
Susie Essman – Mittens
Dan Fogelman – Billy (newbie of LA pigeons)
Greg Germann – The Agent
Kelly Hoover – Ester
Jenny Lewis – Assistant Director
James Lipton – The Director
J. P. Manoux – Tom (pitcher of LA pigeons)
Malcolm McDowell – Dr. Calico
Tim Mertens – Bobby (a NY pigeon)
Chloë Grace Moretz – Young Penny
Ronn Moss – Dr. Forrester
Daran Norris – Louie (a NY pigeon)
Randy Savage – Thug
Brian Stepanek – Martin (pepper spray)
Nick Swardson – Blake (head of LA pigeons)
John Travolta – Bolt
Kari Wahlgren – Mindy (from the Network)
Mark Walton – Rhino
And various additional voices, as usual
Sources of Inspiration – Another original entry, but a good one!
Release Dates
November 17th, 2008 in Hollywood, California, USA (premiere)
November 21st, 2008 in the USA (general release)
Run-time – 96 minutes
Directors – Byron Howard and Chris Williams
Composers – John Powell
Worldwide Gross – $310 million
Accolades – 1 win and 31 nominations, including an Oscar nomination


2008 in History

Global stock markets plunge due to fears of a US recession fuelled by the previous year’s subprime mortgage crisis; this leads to food and fuel prices soaring and a general financial crisis
The four-year Kivu conflict of the DRC is ended with the signing of a peace deal in Goma
Iran opens its first space centre and launches a rocket into space
Kosovo declares independence from Serbia, but acceptance by the international community remains mixed to this day
The countries of Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela go through the Andean diplomatic crisis
Bhutan adopts a new constitution, becoming a multiparty democracy and holding its first general elections
Forces of the African Union and Comoros invade the rebel-held island of Anjouan, bringing it back under Comorian control
A major earthquake measuring 7.9 on the moment magnitude scale hits Sichuan in China, killing around 87,000
The Union of South American Nations is founded
NASA’s Phoenix spacecraft becomes the first to land on the northern polar region of Mars
Nepal’s Legislature Parliament votes to abolish the 240-year-old monarchy, turning the country into a republic
Canada and Australia’s prime ministers issue apologies to their nations’ native peoples for past atrocities
Eleven mountaineers are killed on K2 in the mountain’s worst single accident
Georgia invades the breakaway state of South Ossetia, igniting the Russo-Georgian War
The 2008 Olympics take place in Beijing, China
The proton beam is circulated for the first time in the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator, located at CERN, near Geneva
SpaceX launches its Falcon 1, the first privately developed space launch vehicle to reach orbit
The music streaming service Spotify is launched in Sweden
The US elects Barack Obama as its 44th president, the first black president in the nation’s history
The city of Mumbai is terrorized for four days by members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, who kill 164 in a series of bombings
The Channel Island of Sark becomes the last European territory to abolish feudalism under a new constitutional arrangement
Théoneste Bagosora and two other senior Rwandan army officers are found guilty of genocide and sentenced to life imprisonment (Bagosora’s sentence was later reduced to 35 years)
Israel invades the Gaza Strip
Births of Princess Eléonore of Belgium and Mia Talerico


 

We come now to the end of the Experimental Era with the first Disney canon film produced under John Lasseter’s management – Bolt. After weeks of dreck, I’m sure you’ll be as relieved as I am to be here because this one is nowhere near as awful as its predecessors. However, it did go through some pretty major changes during its production, so we should be glad it turned out so well.

The idea for this film originally came from Chris Sanders, who was responsible for one of the studio’s only real successes of the decade, Lilo & Stitch. In the early days, the film was tentatively titled American Dog and was going to revolve around a TV star pup named Henry who would wind up stranded in the deserts of Nevada with a testy, one-eyed cat and a giant radioactive rabbit (?), all of them searching for a new home. Judging from the concept art of this time, the film was going in a very different direction before Lasseter stepped in.

Shortly after becoming the Chief Creative Officer at Disney Animation in 2006, Lasseter and other execs attended a couple of screenings of Sanders’ film and proceeded to give him plenty of notes on how to improve the story. Sanders, though, wasn’t having any of that and refused to change anything; Lasseter later said, “Chris Sanders is extremely talented, but he couldn’t take it to the place it had to be.” This might sound like another case of executive meddling, but to be fair, the general consensus among those who saw this early version of the film is that the changes really did need to be made and Sanders was just being stubborn. In the end, Sanders left the project (and went to work at DreamWorks, where he would find further success), so Chris Williams and Byron Howard were appointed Bolt’s new directors.

As we all know, this wasn’t the first time a canon film had undergone a complete turnaround far into its production – indeed, it was almost becoming the norm. The results could be notoriously sketchy, but thankfully in this case the team rose to the occasion and made it work. The animation staff had just eighteen months to complete their work instead of the usual four years, but undoubtedly working with computers helped them get it all done more speedily. To create a distinct style for the film, art director Paul Felix, look and lighting director Adolph Lusinsky and their teams took a two-day research trip across the United States to explore the film’s various settings in person – they visited an Ohio trailer park, the San Francisco docks, New York streets and the deserts around Las Vegas to study the different ways in which the lighting in these locations interacted with the scenery.

The finished film boasts a more attractive design and sleeker animation than the earlier CGI efforts, and it was received with praise and (I suspect) relief from critics and audiences alike. Let’s end this era on a high note and dive into the rich, painterly world of Bolt.

 

Characters and Vocal Performances

Bolt practices dog faceBolt tries heat vision

For the confused canine himself, John Travolta was always the first choice for his voice, which I found interesting. After all, it’s not like he’d had an extensive voice-acting career up to that point! Still, the choice worked surprisingly well and Travolta does a solid job with the role.

Bolt is an American White shepherd who has spent almost his entire life on the set of a TV show, in which he stars as the superpowered protector of a young girl named Penny and the nemesis of the sinister Dr. Calico. After the show’s director is threatened with cancellation, his attempt to mix things up a bit goes awry when Bolt, left in a panic due to a cliff-hanger episode ending, ends up escaping from the set and gets carried across the country in a delivery van. Finding himself stranded in New York City, Bolt must somehow find a way to get back to LA – and to Penny – while coming to terms with the fact that he is not, in fact, a superdog.

Story-wise, Bolt’s arc has a lot in common with that of Buzz Lightyear in the first Toy Story film; both characters are completely delusional, the victims of brainwashing who have become convinced of the truth of their artificial worldview. Although Bolt’s delusions are often played for laughs, the film doesn’t shy away from showing us the internal conflict this causes the poor dog either; I would argue that the show’s director is actually this film’s true antagonist, since he’s basically been psychologically abusing this dog for years.

Bolt’s personality goes through a huge change over the course of the film as he’s forced to adapt to living in the real world without the benefit of his “powers.” At the start, when he’s still fully immersed in his fantasy, he is self-assured and confident, conducting himself with the kind of gravity born from being made to feel important and special all his life. He is focused and unwavering in his duty to protect Penny, but this is becoming detrimental to their actual relationship as he refuses to let his guard down even to play with her, much as he wants to. Bolt also treats all cats as inferior because he believes them to be in league with his nemesis, speaking to them in a condescending manner and openly insulting them in various ridiculous ways; of course, the cats on the set are fully aware of the fictionality of the show and derive cruel pleasure from taunting the muddled mutt. This hatred of cats is a bit of a stereotype, admittedly, but here, it serves to highlight Bolt’s limited perspective of the world – even when he meets Mittens in a city on the other side of the country, he still assumes she’s in league with the “Green-Eyed Man” because he simply can’t conceive of anybody not knowing who this is.

Bolt has his epiphany

When he is suddenly thrust out into the real world, Bolt is totally unprepared for it. Although he tries to remain committed to his mission to protect Penny, we see that he is shaken in spite of himself and struggles for a moment to remain calm. Limited by his own narrow line of thinking, Bolt soon latches on to a cat – Mittens – in the belief that she’ll be able to lead him to Penny, and there follows a broad stretch of comic fun as the pair travel across the country together, Mittens frustrated all the while by Bolt’s crazy convictions. As he gradually adjusts to living in reality, his arc takes on a hint of “spoiled rich person having to take care of themselves for the first time” too; he is so pampered that he doesn’t even recognise the feeling of hunger, instead believing Mittens has poisoned him. While this is funny, I find it starts to feel a bit sad as you get older, too – it’s hard not to feel sorry for this poor dog as he struggles with these most basic concepts, and it is this very pity which later convinces Mittens to stick by him.

Of course, the fantasy soon starts to crumble as Bolt finds none of his “powers” are working and begins to experience hunger and pain. He displays signs of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where his self-confidence diminishes as his knowledge of the world is challenged and his true ignorance becomes apparent. As he stubbornly tries to cling on to his beliefs, Mittens pushes him to accept the truth until, eventually, one failed escape too many convinces him that he is just a regular dog after all – as he wipes away his “mark of power”, you really feel his despair as everything he knows is thrown into question. Rhino manages to get Bolt out of his funk at this point by reassuring the pup of his own inner heroism, despite remaining convinced himself that Bolt is a superdog, and the two of them use the skills they have to bust Mittens out of the pound. After this, Bolt has a bit of an existential crisis in which he grapples with the void left by the collapse of his delusion – but luckily, he has Mittens to help him fill it. She begins to teach him how to be an ordinary dog, and he takes to it with delight.

Bolt sticks his head out window

One of the nice things about Bolt as a character is that in spite of all the turmoil he goes through, the core aspects of his personality remain constant through it all. His devotion to Penny never wavers, even when everything else he believed in has been proved a lie; Mittens, bitter from her own bad experiences with owners, tries to convince him to let go of Penny too, but somehow, Bolt knows that this part of his life was always true. As the superhero façade slips away, we get to see what Bolt is like on the inside, and he’s actually just as heroic as his character even without his powers. Without the actor’s veneer, however, he’s also more humble and down-to-earth, a simple dog who likes to play just as much as the next one.

After risking his life to rescue Penny, Bolt has proven to himself and everyone else that you don’t need superpowers to be a hero, and when Penny’s mom takes them all out of the show he is finally free to enjoy the life he’s been missing out on for so many years. It’s a satisfying conclusion to his arc and makes Bolt one of the most engaging leads of the decade.

Bolt and Mittens with hot dog

I especially like the friendship that develops between Bolt and Mittens. At first, Mittens spends most of the time either angry or nervous with Bolt as he switches back and forth between steely-eyed protector and unhinged lunatic, but after the pair hook up with Rhino, she begins to understand what he’s going through and starts helping him to cope with it. Their relationship reaches a turning point when Bolt goes back to rescue her from the pound, even after learning that he has no powers – the act clearly moves Mittens and from this point on, the two are firm friends. She shows him what he’s been missing and helps him to get over the loss of his previous identity, and although she is hurt at first when Bolt turns down the offer of joining her in feral life, she comes to learn that humans aren’t all as bad as she thinks and ends up giving domestic life another chance.

Mittens lying in tree

Mittens was originally going to be called “Mister Mittens” to underline the point of her neglectful owners not caring enough to even check if she was male or female, but I’m glad they didn’t go with that as it might have come across rather awkwardly. Played with fantastic sass by Susie Essman, Mittens is a feral cat from the streets of New York who makes a living from bullying pigeons out of their food, although her threat of bringing out the dreaded claws turns out to be an empty one as her owners had her declawed before they abandoned her.

Mittens first meets Bolt in an abrupt way to say the least as he bursts into her life demanding that she take him to Penny, who she has of course never heard of. Clever and resourceful, Mittens clearly has no intention of allowing herself to be cat-napped by this crazy dog and spends most of her early scenes trying to escape him. Honestly, who can blame her – after being pinned to a garbage can and nearly dropped off a bridge into traffic, she’s then tied up and dragged through the streets, thrown from a moving truck and from a moving train before finally ending up locked in the pound. She certainly goes through a lot for him! Along the way, she and Bolt meet up with Rhino, whose fannish idolising of Bolt finally clues Mittens in to the dog’s true identity; she then begins trying to convince him of his own normality.

Mittens talks about owners

I’ve always enjoyed the “only sane man” characters in comedy films as they often end up being the funniest of the bunch, and Mittens is no exception with her dry, sarcastic responses to the madness she encounters on the journey. However, she’s also given a layer of depth with a dark past that makes her feel like a more well-rounded character and inspires a great deal of sympathy for her plight. Throughout the film, it’s hinted that she’s had a hard life on the streets – she knows how begging works and resents that only dogs can get away with it, she knows about the pound and which types of animals tend to be adopted from it, and finally it’s revealed that she once had a home of her own until her careless owners left her behind “to fend for herself.”

In a way, Mittens reminded me of Meg from Hercules with her cynical outlook and a past full of betrayal – just as in that film, the character here ends up finding the loyalty she always wanted in a goofy but loveable “hero”, although in this case the relationship is obviously not romantic. Bolt proves his loyalty to her when he goes out of his way to bust her out of the pound, earning her respect and friendship in the process; after this, she introduces him to the perks of being a regular dog and opens up to him about her former life as a pet, fully trusting him for the first time. Although her experiences make her doubtful of Penny’s affection for Bolt (and move her to try and protect him from being hurt in the same way), she sees for herself how much the girl misses her dog and realises that she was wrong to condemn all people. It’s good to see she’s not too proud to admit when she’s wrong, and she rushes straight back to Bolt to reaffirm his faith in Penny.

Mittens’ experiences with Bolt and Rhino slowly teach her to trust people again, and by the end of the film, she’s come full circle and gone back to the comfortable domestic life she was forced out of. I enjoyed this character and her arc a lot; she’s great fun, a bit of a “jerk with a heart of gold,” but more importantly, she’s well-written and well-acted, making her a strong deuteragonist to Bolt.

Rhino will go get his ball

Interestingly, with the character of Rhino the hamster, story artist Mark Walton was originally only supposed to be filling in as a temporary “scratch voice” until an actor was cast. However, he did such a good job with the role that he ended up securing it for himself, despite having only limited voice acting experience prior to this. It was a terrific casting decision; I think we can all agree that nobody else could have made Rhino quite so appealing.

Rhino is a small hamster lazing his days away in an RV park, where he is one of several hamsters owned by an eccentric-looking old lady. He appears to be a bit of a telly addict, which is why, when faced with the star of a hit series about a superpowered canine, his reaction is a mixture of the over-the-top gushing fan and the deluded media consumer who believes everything he sees on the screen is real.

Rhino watching TV

Rhino is a great comic addition to the trio, serving at first as a compliment to Bolt’s fantasy because he indulges wholly in it himself and encourages Bolt’s misplaced confidence in his “superpowers.” Aside from his devotion to his hero, though, Rhino is also an engaging character in his own right, positively bursting with confidence and ambition – it seems he has been waiting for just such an opportunity as this when he invites himself along on Bolt and Mittens’ quest to find Penny, selling himself hard as a useful accomplice despite his tiny size. Throughout the trip, he continues to work to aid his comrades any way he can, often proving surprisingly useful – they couldn’t have escaped the pound without his help, that’s for sure.

Crucially, it is only after Rhino reveals where he knows Bolt from that Mittens realises who the dog is, thus explaining his bizarre behaviour. Of course, while Mittens immediately knows that this TV star isn’t all he thinks he is, Rhino is completely oblivious and remains convinced of Bolt’s abilities right to the end – in fact, I don’t think he’s ever challenged in this (the one time Mittens tries, he’s too distracted to listen) and apparently goes on in the happy belief that Bolt has heat-vision and a “superbark” forever.

Once Bolt is finally forced to accept that he is a normal dog, Rhino (unaware of this revelation) manages to restore Bolt’s faith in himself with a rousing (if cheesy) speech, explaining how Bolt’s show has inspired him to believe in his own capabilities and showing Bolt that a hero is defined by his actions rather than by his powers (seriously, Hercules could have taken notes from this film). Later on, after Bolt and Mittens have had a falling-out and Bolt has left alone to find Penny, Rhino also has another moment of unintentional inspiration when he teaches Mittens the value of loyalty, which in turn inspires Mittens to convince Bolt to go back to Penny after he mistakenly assumes the girl has forgotten about him.

Rhino's stealth mode

Overdramatic and even more deluded than Bolt is, you can’t help but love Rhino – he’s passionate and totally committed to his role as Bolt’s sidekick, refusing to let his physical limitations stand in the way of his goals. He’s actually given stuff to do and his friendships with Bolt and Mittens are tied together very naturally, making this trio far more likeable than some earlier ones (I’m looking at you, Home on the Range). In the end, all three of these characters get clear resolutions to their character arcs – Mittens gets a home, Rhino gets to be with his hero, and Bolt gets to enjoy a normal life with his beloved Penny – and Bolt leaves you with far greater satisfaction than any other canon films of the time.

Penny with Bolt on set

A rather tactless change was made with the role of Penny. At first, young Chloë Grace Moretz was cast to play the whole part and apparently recorded all of her lines, but then late into production she was suddenly switched for Miley Cyrus, with only one scene of Moretz’s remaining at the start of the film. I can only assume that this was done for reasons of marketability, as Cyrus was deep into her Hannah Montana days at the time and was thus one of Disney’s most popular and recognisable starlets. Still, it seems like a rotten thing to do to Moretz, and Cyrus actually sounds a bit too mature to be voicing the character (although she was only about fifteen herself at the time).

This is at least the thirdPenny” in the canon by this point (what was it with that name?) and none of them have last names, so it can all get a bit confusing. (I wonder if Penny is just the character’s name? I don’t recall any of the humans referring to her by it, now that I think about it). Anyway, this Penny is a young actress and the owner of Bolt who serves the basic function of a MacGuffin, a goal for Bolt to aim for after he gets lost and must try to get back to her. As a character, we don’t learn too much about her, even though plenty of questions are raised about her life – how did she get into acting, for instance? Was it her choice, or was she perhaps pushed into it by her mother? Either way, she doesn’t seem to be too happy with it and has become little more than a pawn of her producers and agents, serving as a kind of light exploration of the difficulties of being a child star.

This is a running theme with the human characters in Bolt, actually – they’re all played in a realistic way, with little of the exaggeration of characters in films like Meet the Robinsons. With the human characters, the film offers some subtle and cleverly handled critiques of various stereotypical figures, especially the people of Hollywood.

Penny with Bolt in trailer

Penny’s only real trait is affection for her dog, which is all she’s required to display for the purposes of the plot. Unlike his handlers and trainers, she understands Bolt as an individual and is shown to be concerned with his treatment off stage, particularly regarding the whole charade of having him believe he has superpowers, which she is eager to put a stop to. Real children will no doubt relate to her struggles as she tries to bring up her arguments with the adults around her, only for them to patronize or not really listen to her, assuming they know best.

There are definitely some hints of exploitation at work here, such as in the rather callous way the studio execs pressure Penny to continue working after losing her dog (admittedly Mindy is a bit gentler about it), but nowhere is Penny’s objectification more evident than in the climax, where she winds up accidentally trapped on a burning soundstage after the rest of the crew are apparently more concerned with saving themselves than a child (who is tied up, lest we forget). Her agent is even prepared to exploit this traumatic incident for publicity!

Penny's mom quits

By this point, Penny’s mom (who has been watching all this rather helplessly up to now) finally puts her foot down and starts acting like a real mother, getting her daughter away from all this mess and letting her live as a normal kid, just as Bolt gets to be a normal dog. Curiously, Penny’s mom doesn’t come across as the typical flashy “stage mom,” so you do have to wonder what part she played in getting Penny this far into the Hollywood system. We can only wonder – it’s just nice to see her stand up for her daughter at last and get her out before anything worse can happen.

Bolt director makes speech

Among the human characters, one of my favourites is the scene-stealing director of the show. He only gets a handful of scenes to steal, but he chews the scenery to pieces in every one of them, it’s terrific. In typical directorial fashion, this director is portrayed as a total egomaniac, an obsessive perfectionist with a “vision” of realism for his show which he absolutely will not deviate from in the slightest. It is thanks to him that Bolt believes everything in the show is real, so we probably shouldn’t get too attached to such a selfish and manipulative character, but damn, it’s hard not to – he’s just so funny!

Mindy Parker from the network

The director shares his best scene with Mindy Parker (from the network), a petite but powerful woman who holds the power of cancellation over the director and also holds her own against him, despite his imposing personality. Mindy is a match for Mittens with her snarkiness and has the same jaded quality to her, as though she’s long since grown used to dealing with these pompous upstart directors and has little time for their trifling demands. The two characters serve as perceptive parodies of typical Hollywood “types,” especially surprising given that this is, after all, a Hollywood film itself. (You wonder exactly who inspired these particular characters… perhaps there were some lingering memories of clashes with Katzenberg).

However, there’s more to Mindy than just bossing her subordinates around. She’s one of the few execs in the film to treat Penny with a level of respect, addressing her as an adult and explaining honestly why they need her to keep going without Bolt, as the livelihoods of many good people are on the line. She clearly has genuine sympathy for the girl, but at the same time, she has a schedule to keep and employees who need paying, so she steps in to convince Penny to accept the “substitute” Bolt with a bit more tact than the bumbling agent manages.

Penny's agent on ground

Oh lord, this guy. Penny’s agent is my favourite Hollywood parody of all – the pathetic money-grubbing exec who is so preoccupied with getting his client exposure and success that he’s willing to exploit her for it. In every interaction he has with Penny, he treats her with a kind of patronizing tactlessness, rambling on with made-up anecdotes and completely ignoring everything she says, simply talking her down until she submits and does what he wants. To be fair, I may be treating this character a little unfairly – he is just doing his job after all, and tactlessness isn’t something you can do much about if it’s the way you are. I must admit, his scenes are generally funny, as he keeps bursting in announcing “good news” about Penny’s career only to be totally wrong-footed when she’s disappointed that he hasn’t found Bolt. You get the feeling that he just doesn’t understand kids and is bad at dealing with people’s emotions, so while he might not necessarily be a terrible agent, he’s certainly not the best one for Penny.

Cats taunting Bolt

Bolt’s show also includes a pair of cats who act as the villain’s pets, but since they are presumably rotated every few seasons and aren’t permanent cast members, the two we see here don’t suffer from the same delusions as their canine co-star. One, the “veteran cat,” has clearly been here a while and has learned to derive a kind of twisted pleasure from taunting Bolt, winding him up and getting him into a state by toying with his perception of all cats as agents of the Green-Eyed Man. He is just beginning to teach the newer cat to indulge in this game when Bolt escapes, terrifying the pair of them; like most bullies, they’re no real match for their victim without their usual “safety net”. Although their motivations are rather spiteful, I do still enjoy the way these two are played.

NY pigeons
L-r: Joey, Vinnie, Bobby and Louie
LA pigeons
L-r: Blake, Tom and Billy

During his travels, Bolt comes across various denizens of the real world, the best of which are the groups of pigeons he meets on opposite sides of the country. The two main groups are the New York pigeons and the Los Angeles ones, each of which embody various stereotypes of the cities they’re in with a kind of affectionate humour.

The New York pigeons include Vinnie, Saul, Joey, Bobby and Louie, and they are labouring under an exploitative “deal” with Mittens in which they provide her with food (unaware that she relies on this due to her lack of claws) and she provides them with “protection” (presumably not a favour they’ve ever had to call in, or they’d have discovered her deception by now). When Bolt first runs into them, we get an extended gag where they recognise him but struggle to place him, but as soon as they realise his intentions, they naturally lead him straight to Mittens and sit back to enjoy their revenge as he dangles her off a bridge. Brash and fast-talking, these guys are some of my favourite minor characters in the film.

So, too, are the LA pigeons, Blake, Billy and Tom, who Bolt meets upon his arrival at the city. I love the casual vernacular these three use and the contrast created between them and their more streetwise New York cousins; the LA pigeons are trying to “make it” like everyone else in Hollywood by shopping pitches around potential producers (like Bolt), which is how Bolt manages to secure their help. By listening to their pitch, he gets them to lead him to the studio lot where Penny is. They have some great dialogue, parodying the faddy diets of LA people and their exaggerated vocabulary, making enjoyable additions to the cast.

There’s a plethora of minor human characters scattered throughout the film, but perhaps the most memorable are the trio we meet at the pound. Ester and Martin seem to be the night staff, a position which neither are especially pleased about; Martin, for his part, has gotten comfy with a magazine and obviously doesn’t want to move, while Ester has apparently been the victim of several practical jokes in the past and obviously doesn’t see the humour in them. Lloyd doesn’t say much, but it seems he was behind most of these pranks as Ester immediately assumes it’s him when Bolt and the others distract her by opening the automatic doors. When the animals’ antics wind up destroying her new truck in a Michael Bay-style explosion, she’s had enough and pepper-sprays her colleagues in fury, believing it all to be an elaborate prank of theirs. Don’t mess with Ester.

Dr. Calico

As with Chicken Little, the cast here is rounded out with a few fictional Hollywood characters from the show Bolt stars in. The most notable is Dr. Calico, the “Green-Eyed Man” himself, who serves as Bolt’s nemesis. Just as Mindy Parker points out, he’s the stereotypical “creepy English guy,” both foppish and menacing at the same time – I love Malcolm McDowell’s line reads for this character, they’re just perfect. “A bit more… communicative.” This character motivates much of Bolt’s action throughout his time in the real world, so he plays a larger role than he first appears to.

Penny's TV dad

We also have Penny’s TV father, who is apparently some sort of scientist as it is he who “altered” Bolt to give him his powers in the first place. One must assume Penny’s dad is involved in some rather dodgy dealings to have gotten mixed up with a guy like Calico. I also found it interesting that Penny is the child of a single father in the show, but the child of a single mother in reality, a perceptive contrast of the usual Disney pattern of motherless children with the more common real-life scenario of fatherless ones.

Calico's thug

The final character of any significance is the unnamed thug who works for Calico, and who tries and fails to capture Penny for him. He’s used as the butt of that old seagull joke from Finding Nemo, where Penny and Bolt get him to talk by holding him inches away from a horrible death.

There is also a “replacement Penny” introduced at the end (possibly voiced by Moretz, it’s hard to tell) after the real one has quit the show. This made for another humorous touch of parody of typical Hollywood procedures which I only understood after watching this as an adult, with a whole convoluted story invented about facial reconstruction to explain the change in actresses.

 

Animation

Strangely, the listed supervisors of the animation in Bolt aren’t credited for any particular characters, but regardless, they include the following: Mark Anthony Austin, Lino DiSalvo, Renato Dos Anjos, Clay Kaytis, Mark Mitchell and Wayne Unten.

Mittens and Bolt circle with styrofoam

For this film, the animators used non-photorealistic rendering to create a more hand-crafted feeling than the previous CGI efforts had; this technique was also used in Tangled two years later and I love it, personally. It makes the animation stand out from the other more generic features and I was glad to see them moving away from the colder, hard-edged “plasticky” look of their first few features, giving the films using the rendering a softer, more painterly look.

This was at least the fifth time that Disney had done a film starring dogs, with Bolt’s legacy stretching all the way back to 1955’s Lady and the Tramp. As you would expect from the masters, we get some charming dog animation on Bolt himself; I especially love the scene where Mittens has to teach him how to beg, it’s priceless. According to the DVD featurette, the leash connecting the two of them during such scenes as this was among the most difficult things to animate in this film.

Rhino says good day to die

Rhino also represented an interesting challenge for the animators, spending most of his screen time within a clear plastic ball. His design was based on a pet chinchilla belonging to John Lasseter, and to prepare to animate him, the animators adopted their own hamster called Doink and filmed him from beneath while he walked across a sheet of Plexiglas. This allowed them to see how Rhino would look when walking around in his ball. To let off some steam, they even got themselves a giant inflatable ball to roll about in!

 

Plot

Bolt’s story is admittedly not one of its most original aspects, and it is mostly this which keeps it from scoring full marks from me. Not that it’s a bad story – it’s just very derivative. The plot of this film is essentially the same as Disney’s 1963 and 1993 versions of Homeward Bound (right down to the pound rescue scene) but with Buzz Lightyear’s character arc from Toy Story. The film hits all the usual clichéd beats, with the misunderstandings and moments of despair followed by the cheesy rousing speech and the final act of courage.

That said, this reliance on formula doesn’t really detract from the viewing experience; in the context of this warm, nostalgic sort of film, it creates a sense almost of safety, making this one ideal to show younger children. The writing is also of a high standard and the film is genuinely funny, probably because it’s not trying too hard or leaning heavily on telegraphed jokes and gags, instead letting the natural comedy of the crazy situations flow. They do also go to some interesting places here and there with their explorations of Bolt’s messed up psychological state and the dissection of Hollywood people and processes. From an adult’s perspective, the film becomes a poignant tale about one abused dog’s journey to mental health and his owner’s journey to regain control over her career. You do have to wonder, though, how the crew of the TV show managed to maintain the façade of reality for so long without Bolt catching on – it seems a bit of a stretch that he’d never noticed anything unusual before, especially given that we actually see a “visible boom mic” problem occur during the film. Has there never been a problem with malfunctioning equipment that caused one of Bolt’s “powers” to appear not to be working before?

Bolt prys bars open

As with most film productions, a few scenes had to be cut along the way, usually for pacing reasons. The two most notable from Bolt involved the epiphany where he realises he’s not really a superdog – there were two alternate versions of this intended for different places in the story which ended up getting the chop. In one, Bolt would have a fight with a pair of vicious Doberman Pinschers in a Las Vegas back alley while foraging for food there, as a clip from his show played on a giant screen just around the corner to highlight the contrast between his screen persona and his actual self. Bolt, of course, loses the fight and winds up badly injured, finally realising the truth of his normalcy, but the producers decided this was too dark and didn’t fit well enough into the story’s structure.

The second version of the epiphany scene involved a daring rescue of Rhino after he falls into a raging river. Still believing himself to have powers, Bolt plunges in after him and is nearly killed, shaking his confidence. Although Rhino survives and believes Bolt to be his saviour, the dog knows the truth and becomes disillusioned and downcast. This version of the scene included the moment from the final film where Bolt wipes the makeup lightning mark off his side, but the rest of the scene got scrapped, again because of structural reasons.

Rhino what did you say

 

Cinematography

Under the supervision of Paul Felix, the art direction of this film was heavily inspired by the works of the great American painters such as George Bellows and Edward Hopper, as well as the cinematography of such directors as Gordon Willis and Vilmos Zsigmond. The aim was to harken back to the more artistic tradition of the classic Disney films, a decision no doubt prompted by John Lasseter’s arrival at the studio. The result is one of the best-looking films since Brother Bear, at least, with some gorgeous backgrounds in the travel montages and lots of great use of colour and lighting.

Bolt scenery #1Bolt scenery #2Bolt scenery #3Bolt scenery #4Bolt scenery #5Bolt scenery #6Bolt scenery #7

Edward Hopper - Lighthouse Hill.jpg
Lighthouse Hill by Edward Hopper, 1927

Bolt scenery #8Bolt scenery #9Bolt scenery #10Bolt scenery #11Bolt scenery #12Bolt scenery #13

The world is shot mainly from the perspective of the animals, keeping the camera close to the ground and looking up at the towering structures above. Many of the buildings are either lifted directly from real life (presumably inspired by the two-day trip across the states) or are inspired by real ones; the studio lot where Bolt’s show is filmed, for instance, was based on the Riverside Drive entrance to the Disney Studio lot in Burbank, California. On the whole, this is a hugely refreshing step up from the last few features, looking decidedly less cheap and much more lush and cinematic.

For the second time, we also get a funny parody of stereotypical Hollywood shooting styles with the opening clip from Bolt’s show, which was apparently inspired chiefly by Michael Bay films. They really nailed the dramatic camera angles, the slow-mo and instant replays typical of action films, and the colour palette is richer and sharper in these scenes to emphasise that they’re not real.

Penny on phone in prologue

One other thing I liked was the traditional animation included during the credits, a nod to the studio’s past as well as a glimmer of hope for the future of hand-drawn animation at Disney. As Miley Cyrus and John Travolta belt out their duet, we see a montage of Bolt, Mittens and Rhino enjoying their new life in the countryside with Penny, and the choice to use traditional animation here adds a degree of cosiness to these final scenes as the film draws to a close.

 

Soundtrack

John Powell’s score here is pleasant, if not spectacular, definitely at its best during the more action-packed moments (especially the train scene). It also features some sweet melodies in the quieter scenes; I could have sworn I heard a little of the Sherman Brothers’ 1968 tune Hushabye Mountain in there at times.

There are only two original songs on offer here, but that’s much better than having an entire soundtrack stuffed with pop music. Barking at the Moon is the only song in the film proper, sung with verve by Jenny Lewis as Bolt goes through his “learning to be a real dog” montage. Apparently, Lewis had originally prepared two songs for the film, but the second was replaced by the Cyrus/Travolta number over the credits. Either way, the one we get is enjoyable, with more of that country vibe we saw in Home on the Range.

I Thought I Lost You imagery #1I Thought I Lost You imagery #2I Thought I Lost You imagery #3

Then we have I Thought I Lost You, another smashing country-flavoured piece performed as a duet between Miley Cyrus and John Travolta over the end credits, which I chose as my forty-first favourite credits song in an earlier post. The song was co-written by Cyrus with producer Jeffrey Steele, and her song-writing abilities impressed Travolta when he heard the finished product. It features some fun electric guitar riffs and piano melodies and was generally well-received, although some critics did note that the song doesn’t work well out of context as it sounds like an awkward love ballad between the middle-aged Travolta and the teenaged Cyrus.

The song Dog-Face Boy from Motörhead’s 1995 album Sacrifice is also listed on the soundtrack, but it’s only used briefly in the mailroom scene where a worker is listening to it on a Walkman.

As I’ve said above, the writing of the film is excellent and this is easily the funniest Disney film since The Emperor’s New Groove, at least for me. Mittens and Rhino get the lion’s share of the zingers and I’m struggling to choose only one favourite – one moment that really tickled me was just after Rhino has first met Bolt and informs him that he watches him all the time. Bolt, misunderstanding, thinks that Rhino has been following him about without his detection and says, “You’re a phantom!” Rhino has a split second where he seems to be aware of Bolt’s delusions, but he shrugs it off with a cheery “Uh… if you say so!” And don’t even get me started on all the Styrofoam gags… who knew that foam peanuts could be so funny?

The voice acting is generally of a high standard here, too, with Mark Walton standing out as an obvious highlight with his enthusiastic take on Rhino. Travolta is better than you might think as Bolt, lending him just the right amount of vulnerability to keep him from feeling insufferable as the poor confused dog alternates between his cocky superpowered TV persona and his lost, helpless, “real” self. Susie Essman is also wonderful as Mittens and you can tell she was having a good time with this role; there’s such a great comic energy to this witty character and yet it all feels so effortless. Cyrus isn’t too bad as Penny, but I do wonder whether it might have been better to keep Chloë Moretz in the role as her voice was more youthful and seemed to fit the character better. Credit is also due to the many additional voices in this feature, as nearly all of Bolt’s background characters manage to shine in their brief appearances – I especially liked the armoured guard from the TV show gushing over little Rhino in his hamster ball while the latter is furiously raging at him in hamster squeaks.

 

Final Verdict

Bolt was released in late 2008 and had to hold its own against the first Twilight film, which it managed to do, faring better in the face of stiff competition than earlier films like The Rescuers Down Under. Starting from its fourth week in theatres, the film was joined by a Pixar animated short from the Cars Toons series; Tokyo Mater. Bolt became the best-received canon film since Lilo & Stitch, with many critics praising it in particular for embracing its Disney heritage rather than trying to distance itself from it like so many of the earlier 2000s films had. Every canon film released since this one has received mainly positive reviews, too, so this marked the end of Disney’s most recent “dark age” and is considered by some fans to mark the beginning of the current “New Revival” era (although others prefer to deem this the last of the Experimentals). For the first time in years, a Disney canon film was also up for the Best Animated Feature Oscar (apparently considered a surprise nominee in a sign of how far Disney had fallen that decade), but Bolt lost to Pixar’s WALL-E (and much as I love both films, I think this is fair).

In 2009, the film debuted first on Blu-ray, marking the first time a major film appeared in Blu-ray format before DVD. A 3D Blu-ray followed in 2010/2011 across the world. The DVD and Blu-Ray versions of the film all feature an extra short called Super Rhino, which I’d never seen until writing this review. It’s very cute and a must-see for fans of the little hamster, basically an alternate take on the TV show in the film in which Rhino is genetically altered like Bolt and must save him and Penny from Calico – only for it to turn out to be a dream he’s having.

Finally, a fun trivia titbit which international readers may already be aware of: The word “bolt” can apparently be used as a vulgar reference to men’s privates in Russian, so in that country, the film was released under the name “Volt” instead. It’s also called “Volt” in Hungary, France and French Canada, while in Croatia, Slovakia, Estonia and Poland, it’s known as “Lightning,” and as “Thunder” in Bulgaria.

 

I can’t tell you what a relief it was to finally reach Bolt this week. Not that it’s a favourite or anything; I’ve just been so starved of quality for the last few weeks as we clawed our way through the mid-2000s. When separated from these feelings, Bolt holds its head high as one of Disney’s more solid offerings, if not one of their most ground-breaking. The witty writing and rich visuals make up for the formulaic plot and dearth of songs and Bolt himself is one of the more engaging of the Experimental leads. If you like dogs, this is definitely one for you, but if you prefer Disney’s big historical musicals, then you might prefer next week’s entry, The Princess and the Frog, where we shall finally see a return to beautiful traditional animation. (Sorry this one is so late, by the way!)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this one, and I’ll see you again next week for the dawn of the New Revival!

My Rating – 4/5

 

References
I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:
The World History of Animation (2011) by Stephen Cavalier
The Art of Walt Disney (2011 ed.) by Christopher Finch
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19564310 – credit for poster
https://www.edwardhopper.net/lighthouse-hill.jsp#prettyPhoto – credit for Hopper image
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bolt_(2008_film) – Wiki page
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0397892/ – IMDB profile

Also, a book I don’t own about the film: The Art of Bolt (2008) by Mark Cotta Vaz

 

 

9 Replies to “Film Review: Bolt (2008)”

  1. I actually first saw BOLT when I was in late middle school, and didn’t see it again until checking it out from the library a few years ago. The second time around, I was taken aback by how well-made it was. As a result, I tend to view this as being the new millennium’s answer to both THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE and OLIVER & COMPANY, as it opened the door for the Revival films that followed.

    While Rhino did serve some function in the story, I must confess that I find him– or more accurately, the way that he stubbornly thinks that everything he sees on TV is real– very annoying.

    Of all the characters, Mittens is by far my favorite. I absolutely love characters with a snarky sense of humor, and she gets all the best lines, if you ask me. Here are a few of my favorites:

    “I don’t know what’s going on around here, but I’m a little concerned about the number of lunatics on this trip: My limit is one.”

    “How do you say “No way am I doing this” in crazy?!”

    “Now I’m concerned on a number of levels…”

    Liked by 1 person

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