Walt Disney Animation Studios hits another home-run after the lovely Meet the Robinsons. Sure, Bolt undoes the emphasis on smaller voice actors, but at its core it tells a rather substantial story about existence, purpose, and identity. On top of that, the film is a sharp satire on Hollywood set amongst the backdrop of a group of animals trying to find a home.
Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) isn’t your average dog. He’s a genetically altered superdog with the power to melt things with his heat vision and emit a thunderous boom with his “super bark.” The problem is Bolt is the unwitting star of a television show, and when he mistakenly believes his owner, Penny (voiced by Miley Cyrus) has been kidnapped Bolt goes out to save her. Lost and alone in a mysterious city where his powers no longer work, Bolt must team up with an alley cat named Mittens (voiced by Susie Essman) in order to get back home.
Bolt was the first film Walt Disney Animation Studios – the subsidiary animation company created in light of PIXAR’s removal from the studio – produced under the eyes of PIXAR head/Disney animation overseer, John Lasseter after PIXAR and Disney joined forces. The humor isn’t quite as plucky and subversive as in Meet the Robinsons, but Bolt still possesses the winking self-awareness Disney was embracing. The movie was originally set as the next film for Lilo & Stitch director Chris Sanders, but creative differences forced Sanders to part ways with the studio and directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams overhauled the picture. Interestingly, Williams had previous experience on The Emperor’s New Groove and Howard would work on Disney’s return to the princess genre with Tangled.
The script, penned by Dan Fogelman, did its homework on Hollywood right from the action-packed opening acting as an intro to Bolt’s work on his television show. The cross-cutting and intensity is reminiscent of ABC’s Alias and above and beyond what you’d expect from an animated film. The television show sets up the necessary exposition and from there Bolt literally bolts from the studio and into the real world where his journey of identity unfolds. The script is what sells the movie, with a blend of deluded one-liners from Bolt and his obsessive hamster companion, Rhino (voiced by Mark Walton), to the Hollywood satire of pigeons who are screenwriters – “Wait for it…” “Aliens.” “Oh, snap!” – to the small-town pound owner who pepper sprays her fellow employees (the term “spicy eyes” continues to show up in my regular conversations). The humor is consistent and a superb mix of physical and verbal to please a wide group of audiences.
Where Meet the Robinsons jokes never felt dated due to its futuristic setting, Bolt has a droll humor through poking fun at the nature of film and television production. At times it’s seen as making fun of truly painful things that do happen in the entertainment industry; specifically Penny’s agent (voiced by Greg Germann) forcing Penny to do whatever she has to in order to gain publicity conjures up images of Cyrus’ own work in Hollywood. Thankfully, his character is the only indication of the true underbelly of Hollywood as the rest is usually played up for laughs at how pervasive Hollywood is. The aforementioned pigeons notwithstanding, Rhino is an overweight hamster who literally lives in a bubble surrounded by television images, and characters mention Bolt’s face being familiar but unable to place him. Coming from a background where I’ve read existential literature, Bolt’s journey felt very heavy for a child’s film. When he finally discovers his life is a sham he asks the question man, and apparently dog, find themselves asking: What is reality? If I’m not the person I think I am, who am I?
Underneath the existential qualities is the easier to digest theme of finding one’s home. Mittens should be bosom buddies with Lilo of Lilo & Stitch and Jessie of the Toy Story movies; I’m unsure if that aids in her complexity or if it shows her as one-dimensional. Regardless, Mittens is the streetwise alley cat whose been abandoned by her owners and thus hates the idea of family. Interestingly, listen to the dialogue and it would be exactly the same if spoken by two adults, particularly two lovers. Yes, it’s a tad eerie to hear Mittens’ attempts to get Bolt to stay with her while Bolt says Penny truly loves him without thinking of some type of love triangle, but it works towards connecting the audience with the animals; their problems are universal!
The vocal cast is good and comparable to Meet the Robinsons in terms of skill. John Travolta is our titular hero and there’s no disguising his voice at all. Travolta never tries to hide that he’s voicing the character, and I guess it’s better than him working to alter his voice, but there’s nothing special in his vocal talents; it’s a passable performance. Miley Cyrus voices Penny, a character originally voiced by Chloe Grace Moretz (who have a few lines of dialogue as a different character at story’s end). Of course, Cyrus is in this considering it’s the peak of her time at Disney, and again there isn’t anything special in her performance, but it’s not a dealbreaker. The standouts are the side characters, Susie Essman as Mittens and Mark Walton as Rhino. They are consummate voice actors who understand vocal inflections and create a performance with their voice. Other appearances by character actors like Diedrich Bader, Nick Swardson, James Lipton and Malcolm McDowell will have you playing “Whose voice is that?”
Disney Animation continues to prove they’re facing changing mores head-on with Bolt. A droll satire on Hollywood with an existential slant, the movie is fun and heart-warming even if the lead performances from Bolt and Penny are rather meh. The soundtrack is a blue-grass style I enjoy a lot, especially Jenny Lewis’ (of Troop Beverly Hills fame) song, “Barking at the Moon.” It’ll be interesting to revisit Walt Disney Animation Studios’ return to princessdom in a few weeks.
NEXT WEEK: Hand-drawn animation is resurrected with The Princess and the Frog
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.