Please indulge me as I do a very, very brief run down of the past two decades of Disney animation. Disney kicked off a new golden age of animation in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s with films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Mulan. But by the early 2000’s the studio had lost the spark, with films like Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, and Chicken Little. A changing of the guard took place and here we are. (I told you it would be brief!) So is Bolt more in line with those early films or the later ones? Neither. But it’s heading in the right direction.

Disney’s ABC might want to consider an actual
Bolt TV series in the Thursday night 8pm time slot.

Bolt is a dog who is the star of a superhero action series on TV. To get the best performance out of the animal the director works to ensure Bolt believes that everything that happens in the show is real, that his person (a girl named Penny) really is in eminent danger without his protection. Every part of the production — the sound guys, the lights, the special effects that create his “powers” — are all carefully kept out of view. When an episode ends in a cliffhanger where Penny is kidnapped by the evil Dr. Calico and his henchmen cats, Bolt springs into action off the studio lot to save her. With the aide of resistant alley cat and an overly enthusiastic hamster, Bolt must make his way from New York to Hollywood without the use of his awesome abilities.

Story-wise, Bolt is solid and pretty clever. It’s a definite step up from some of the recent misfires earlier this decade. The story features a fun plot that isn’t too hip nor too plodding. While the film is more lightweight than some of the classic Disney films of the past, it is very easy to like; to put it more pithily, the story is fulfilling if not edifying. The biggest problem is that part of the story upstages the rest of the film. The clips of the Bolt TV series are a lot better that the Bolt movie itself! I know that if they had made a movie based on the TV series plot critics like me would probably have panned it as too outlandish. However, I admit the most exciting parts of the film are the parts that don’t make up our main story. I actually found myself hoping they’d work some more TV clips into the film. That said, the main story line is good too, if a lot less exhilarating. And that may have been a contrast the filmmakers wanted to highlight — the exciting life of a superhero dog vs the average life of a house pet. Which is truly the better “man’s best friend”? Which brings us to why Bolt is better than some of its predecessors. Like Meet the Robinsons before it, Disney storytellers have rediscovered how to make that emotional spark with their audience. And also like Meet the Robinsons they can surprise you with it, making you care when you really weren’t expecting to! Past films like Treasure Planet and Brother Bear tried to make that connection with viewers but it was always forced and therefore unsuccessful. Other past films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin successfully made that connection with innately likable characters that you wanted to see do well. In Bolt, the story actually moves you along a path so you end up at the final destination along with the characters, having made the same emotional journey they make with each other. I was pleasantly surprised by the time the credits rolled that I felt the way I did about the characters and their denouement!

Watch your back, Rhino.
John Travolta doesn’t like scene stealing hamsters.

Disney’s computer animation has come a long way since Chicken Little just 3 years ago. It’s still a little too “clean”, unlike Pixar’s films where the worlds actually seem “lived in”. But they are definitely at the point that you don’t think “Hey, I’m watching a CG film” the whole time, as was somewhat the case in their previous efforts. I actually thought the character designs for the three main animal characters were very good (if also a little too marketable for the inevitable toy line). And the action sequences were outstanding. Very nice “camera” work, very cool effects, and very funny use of action movie cliches like slow motion and multiple angles of the same events.

Voice work in Bolt was fairly average. Headliners John Travolta and Miley Cyrus as Bolt and Penny brought nothing special to the parts and could have easily been replaced with just about anyone. Susie Essman as the captive cat Mittens is better, but not all that memorable. Disney has been hyping story artist Mark Walton’s turn as the voice of Rhino as scene stealing, and they are right. But part of me wonders how much of that is just because everyone else was so lackluster. Luckily none of this distracts from the film as every one is adequate in their roles. But it again drives home one of my complaints that a lot of films would be a lot better with actual professional voice actors.

The two films released since John Lasseter took over the reins of Disney Animation (Bolt and Meet the Robinsons) are a definite step up from what was being produced before he got there. They have solid stories and a real emotional spark. What they’re missing is that classic quality or timeless feeling that the earlier films had. That will probably come soon enough. For now it’s just great to be able to go to a Disney movie again and know you’re going to have a good time.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Walt Disney Animation
November 21, 2008
96 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Byron Howard & Chris Williams