Bolt is a very interesting movie.
I saw it for the first time ever this week, and when it was over, what struck me the most abruptly was how un-Disney-like it felt. The story, the animation, the music choices; almost everything about it smacked of a whole different studio. Not a particularly bad or cheap studio production by any means; it just felt very off brand, at least compared to mainstream, theatrical Disney.
The 2000’s was not a good time for animation overall, whether it be in movies or television, and these were certainly the years that Disney floundered a little bit trying to find a new angle.
The story is a weird mix of The Truman Show and Home Alone, spiced sparingly with a bit of Spy Kids. The main character is a dog named Bolt. An entire television studio, in addition to the dog’s owner, have convinced Bolt that he has been genetically altered, and that he is basically a super dog with the sole purpose of protecting his owner, Penny, from sinister forces. Think Inspector Gadget’s niece, because she has the same first name and basically serves that role, except she’s the daughter of a brilliant scientist who has been captured and refuses to help the bad guys for anything short of saving her life.
The tv studio does this because if Bolt believes with all of his heart that this is true, his “acting” will be powerful, sincere, and believable. But one day, in an attempt to try something new, Penny is “captured” in a cliffhanger ending, and after the set is closed and everyone leaves, Bolt escapes, desperate to save Penny from danger. He ends up being knocked out and accidentally shipped across the country, where he slowly discovers who he really is and what it means to be a real dog. Then, he must find his way home, assisted by a delusional hamster, a cynical cat, and occasionally some New York and California pigeons.
It’s a very odd story; not the kind of thing Disney usually does, and definitely not an area in which they shine. In that regard, its closest companion might be The Emperor’s New Groove, but even The Emperor’s New Groove feels like the Disney-fying of a non-Disney concept, and a good, successful one at that. While I liked a lot about it, Bolt, as a finished product, feels at best like as a Disney Channel original movie. Good, but not a classic I will return to many more times. Definitely leagues above Home on the Range and Chicken Little, though that’s not saying much.
Why is that exactly? Well, for one thing, the story is ridiculously hard to believe right off the bat. The world within the film doesn’t lend itself to suspension of disbelief, because it’s supposed to be our modern day, but it’s stacked so precariously and fragilely that you’re surprised it hasn’t come crashing down already. Everything revolves around this one dog…why is that again? I know this is a movie for kids, but how much of this should I take seriously and how much of this is supposed to be satire of some kind? It’s not focused and it’s not glued together very well.
Another thing is that I didn’t really relate to any of the characters. They were…nice, and I liked them okay, but it was a very shallow sort of feeling. I wasn’t invested outside of my general sympathy for a cute animal getting lost and a fellow pet parent being worried. I liked Mittens the cat best of all because she acts as the beleaguered straight man who has to put up with delusional, possibly crazy people, but that also made me dislike Bolt more, as he dangled her over a busy highway and nearly got them both killed trying to jump onto a fast moving train.
I can’t ever remember the Hamster’s name (p.s. It was Rhino), but he was the most annoying character, and his design gave me unpleasant flashbacks to Norm of the North.
The music isn’t bad, but it’s also not particularly memorable. The celebrity voices are only slightly distracting, mostly because John Travolta’s adult voice doesn’t really fit his cute character design, but that’s not a new in the world of animation, and if you’re a kid, you probably wouldn’t notice anyway. The animation is decent, though it doesn’t have Disney or Pixar’s traditional charm.
What more can I say about Bolt? It’s just a perfectly average movie, fine to watch and fine to show your kids.
Still, of all of the things that bizarre, bumbling 2000’s era of Disney produced, I’d sooner recommend Meet the Robinsons. That was the best and most meaningful film that happened during the Eisner shift.
Final Score: 5.5/10