I’ve thrown shade at “Bolt” before in my previous reviews, dismissing it as being average and implying that I really don’t like it, but I’ve never really explained why before now. For starters, nothing about the premise of this movie makes any kind of sense from the word ‘go’. The basic concept of “Bolt” is that a canine actor has spent most of his life being convinced he’s a superdog by the crew of his television show, but after being separated from his owner, Penny, Bolt has to survive in the real world. The director and his crew have ensured they get every episode of Bolt’s show done perfectly in one take all these years to maintain the illusion. This is impossible. Not improbable, impossible. Anyone who’s had any experience in the television business or the movie-making business will tell you things get complicated and frustrating very quickly, with all sorts of variables you can’t even conceive of. Sometimes someone flubs their lines, sometimes the blocking’s off, sometimes the equipment fails, sometimes there’s an accident, sometimes there’s a blackout. It’s literally impossible for that director to have gotten every episode of Bolt’s show done perfectly in one take for years before this movie. Not to mention, the budget for the series looks more like it belongs to a billion-dollar movie than a cable series.
What really stretches belief is the reveal that “Bolt” doesn’t even film on location, it’s done entirely inside in a television studio. There is no TV studio on Earth big enough for the bombastic chase set-piece Penny and Bolt experience in the movie’s first scene, even with green screen helping them (if we weren’t doing that whole business about Bolt not knowing he’s in a TV show you could just say they broke it down piece by piece). Later, Bolt gets knocked out and shipped away by air to New York City, to kickstart the main plot. That box he was sealed shut in didn’t have air holes, it was chock full of Styrofoam, and I’m pretty sure Bolt was unconscious in it for about a day. Bolt should probably be dead. To cap it all off, at one point Bolt starts to feel hunger pangs, furiously demands Mittens gives him some answers about what’s happening, and she has to explain the concept of food to him and why he needs it. So I guess Bolt has been so sheltered that he’s never felt hunger before in his life and never needed to be fed food before now, even back before he became a TV star. It’s ironic. “Bolt” is a supposed to be set in a more grounded universe than usual that’s closer to our own because there’s no magic present, but most of the plot mechanics of this movie feel way more forced and contrived than your average Disney movie. Magic really does work well as a narrative shortcut.
Another problem “Bolt” has is that it’s characters really aren’t that great, and as a result this movie is extremely boring. Let’s start with our leading canine, Bolt. Bolt, voiced by a gravelly John Travolta, is cute. He’s a small, brave, scruffy and fiercely devoted dog – the epitome of man’s best friend – and he’s also shown to be crafty, intelligent and adaptable. But for the first two-thirds of the film, he really isn’t that likable or compelling since his entire personality and motivations revolve around the premise that I’ve already explained is ridiculous. Bolt’s character arc in this film is kind of a hybrid rip-off of Buzz Lightyear’s self-discovery arc in “Toy Story” and the classic kid and their dog story. When Bolt gets separated from his owner / co-star, Penny, he travels a long distance to find her again, and along the way discovers he’s not actually a superdog. For most of the film, Bolt is arrogant, single-mindedly focused on finding his girl and at times callous, constantly overestimating his abilities and dragging others along for the ride. His signature fearlessness mostly stems from ignorance, and the audience is basically waiting for him to catch up to something they already know, so his hubris honestly grates, a lot. Like a lot of animated dogs, Bolt has a pretty strong prejudice against cats that he steadily outgrows as he warms up to Mittens, which is one of the better bits of character development he gets in the film.
The most satisfying moment in the movie is when Bolt finally realizes he’s not a super special snowflake after all and gets humbled, hard, about his limitations, at which point he finally starts to wise up, becomes a likable character in the last act of the film, and starts to develop a three-dimensional personality. Now that Bolt can no longer define himself as a superdog, he has to learn how to be a real dog and make up for lost time that greedy human producers stole from him, so he takes Mittens up on her offer to teach him how to be a real dog. Bolt is easily at his most compelling during this part of the movie, when he has to rebuild his whole identity and decide what to keep and what to leave behind. He has to make a choice between staying with his new friends or going back to Hollywood to find Penny, in the hopes that at least that part of his upbringing was real, and of course when he does go back, he arrives just in time to see her acting with his replacement pooch. Bolt feels sad about that for a few minutes, before he doubles back and saves Penny from a studio fire, rekindling their bond. And then the movie ends. That was Bolt’s arc. He was somewhat irritating for most of it, a few old plot twists happened, and then it wrapped up in the most cliche way possible for a movie about a kid and their dog – like something straight out of “Lassie”.
Mittens is one of the better characters in this movie. She’s self-centered and bitchy when we first meet her, extorting her local pigeons for food, but she has the most personality of the three leads, she’s grounded in reality (unlike Bolt and Rhino), and her thick New York accent strangely reminds me of Elaine from “Seinfeld”. When Bolt decides he needs a cat to take him across country to Hollywood, Mittens is dragged along for the trip, and she tries and fails several times to weasel her way out of it. The best thing about Mittens is her biting, cynical humor and the fact that she knows what she’s being forced to participate in is all kinds of stupid and she hates every minute of it. Since the power of friendship comes into play in this movie, Mittens of course warms to Bolt over time (either that or the Stockholm Syndrome starts to set in) especially after she teaches him how to be a real dog. Mittens gets one of the most affecting scenes in the movie, where it’s revealed that her owners abandoned her and left her declawed and unable to defend herself, re-contextualizing her entire attitude throughout the movie. It’s especially surprising since it’s one of the few plot developments that aren’t completely predictable. Mittens follows Bolt to L.A. and helps him save his girl, and then they live happily ever after.
Disney sidekicks are often written off as being annoying and overly-indulgent, but I’ve found myself liking and enjoying the bulk of them (particularly the ones from the golden era and the renaissance era). However, the hamster in a ball, Rhino, is pretty annoying, more so than Bolt at his worst. Rhino spends the entire movie being the chubby, hyperactive fanboy stereotype in hamster form (similar to Po from “Kung Fu Panda”, but without Po’s sensitive, redeeming qualities and his large amount of character development). He has an intense hero worship of Bolt and is quick to leave behind his boring life at a trailer park to tag along with his hero on a quest, often clashing with Mittens, the non-believer. Rhino basically serves as the movie’s meme character: making random quips, gushing orgasmically about things (usually about how awesome Bolt is and how awesome he is as well), being more violent-minded than you would expect a hamster to be (that’s actually the joke his entire character is built on), and naturally overestimating his abilities. Every now and again, Rhino does hint at having an introspective side and being more than a crazed fanboy, like when he divulges why he idolizes Bolt so much, but it’s just as quickly forgotten about for more jokes about how delusional he is. As far as quirky sidekicks go, Rhino is just kind of there.
The other animal side characters don’t fare much better. Like Rhino, they’re all basically eccentric, exaggerated, talkative parodies of human stereotypes, such as Italian Mafioso pigeons; lazy, valley-guy cats who pester actors; or drama queen, story-pitching pigeons. This sort of humor is something that’s very hit and miss in animated movies – it can either be very witty and funny or very lazy and boring, and in “Bolt’s” case it’s unfortunately the latter. The movie tries very hard to be amusing with these characters, but much of the humor falls flat and eventually becomes dull. Possibly because the film doesn’t really do anything interesting or unique or subversive with these various caricatures, they’re barely there for long and they’re all very straightforward, so the movie just throws animals acting like humans out there for a few moments before they vanish into the ether and the film moves onto something else (“Zootopia” would have much more success mixing animal and human stereotypes). Mind you, quite a few people like this movie (to the point where it’s considered one of the better films of the 2000’s), so perhaps “Bolt’s” brand of humor is just not my cup of tea.
Bolt’s owner, Penny, is portrayed by Miley Cyrus, circa 2008 (during her Hannah Montana days, before Miley went off the deep end for a while). Considering Penny is supposed to be thirteen and looks her age as a preteen girl, I have to say Miley’s voice is a bit too deep and a bit too old for this character, leading to some unintentionally funny shots of Penny talking (“Daddy!”). Regardless, Miley’s acting experience at this point allows her to turn in a good performance, even if she’s unaccustomed to vocal work, and Penny is another character in this movie that’s actually not annoying – she’s probably one of the most likable figures of the lot. Like a lot of child actors, Bolt and Penny are basically being exploited and mistreated by shady Hollywood types, and Penny can feel the rift it’s causing in her relationship with Bolt and the damage it’s already done to her beloved dog, but she can’t really do anything about it without ending their careers. Naturally, Penny and her mom come to the conclusion that no acting gig is worth it if Bolt and Penny aren’t safe and happy, and quit the acting business for good after Bolt gets lost in America and Penny almost dies in a studio fire. Penny’s agent (who looks strangely like Neil Patrick Harris) is awful. That’s entirely the point, mind you. He’s supposed to be a slimy bastard with no principles, but he’s also at least supposed to be funny. He’s not. He’s just a weird creep who never once shuts up that you wish Penny’s mom had fired a lot sooner than she did.
As you would expect, the animation is solid and done well enough, but at the same time, not really anything to write home about compared to later 3-D films Disney would produce in the 2010’s. “Bolt” was released not long after the House of Mouse made the switch from hand-drawn animation to 3-D animation, and right around the time John Lasseter made his mark on the company, so naturally “Bolt’s” art style resembles your average Pixar film. Except, while “Bolt’s” art style is sleek and clean, it lacks the vibrancy, detail and lithe touch of Pixar’s films that helps make them so engaging – the 3-D animators at Disney weren’t at that level yet. In addition, the film’s color scheme is very grey, muted and restrained, making it seem visually dreary, dull and unappealing for most of the movie. This applies to the character designs as well. It’s all pretty competent but at the same time, dull. John Powell’s score is pleasant to listen to and one of the movie’s redeeming qualities. The score in the first half of the film ranges everywhere from snazzy to humorous to tender (particularly his plaintive theme for Penny and Bolt), and begins to feel increasingly grand and sweeping in the second half of the movie. Jenny Lewis’ “Barking At The Moon” is an enjoyable, folksy road trip song and possibly the most memorable scene in the movie, encompassing Bolt, Mittens and Rhino’s cross country trip to L.A. Seeing as how she was their golden girl at the time, Disney probably wouldn’t hire Miley Cyrus to voice a character in one of their movies unless they also gave her a song, and Miley naturally brings the goods during her duet with John Travolta in “I Thought I Lost You”. It’s a duet you probably never thought you’d hear, but a harmonious one.
“Bolt” is a unique pile-up of bad decisions. The premise is nonsensical and forced, many of the characters are annoying, the art style is dreary, Miley Cyrus feels somewhat out of place, and almost nothing of interest happens for the first two-thirds of this movie. At best, it’s mediocre, and I consider it a testament to how bland and formulaic Disney movies got in the mid-to-late 2000’s.
* “It’s all right. You won’t be alone. You have Bolt. I’ve altered him. He can protect you now”.
* “Wow. Okay. You want reality? Here you go, chief. The show’s too predictable. The girl’s in danger, the dog saves her from the creepy English guy, we get it. There’s always a happy ending. And our focus groups tell us 18-to-35-year-olds are unhappy. They’re not happy with happy. So maybe you should, I don’t know, spend a little less time worrying about the dog’s Method acting and more time figuring out how to stop 20-year-olds in Topeka from changing the channel. Because if you lose so much as half a rating point, so help me, I will fire everyone in this room, starting with you. How’s that for real?”
“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Way too many words. I was, like, “What?” And then I was, like, “Huh?” And then, well, I got a little bored and… Something about clutches? Anyway, I’ll do my best. Ciao” “By the way, huge fan. Love it, love you. Gotta go. Thank you”.
* “You’re crazy, man!”
* “Your deal just expired”.
* “I bet Bolt would want you to do the tonight show!”
* “What? What is this red liquid coming from my paw?” “It’s called blood, hero!” “Do I need it? “Yes! So if you wanna keep it inside your body, where it belongs, you should stop jumping off trucks doing 80 on the interstate!”
* “Beat it, stupid cat!”
* “You, you are vile vermin. How do you sleep at night? Penny’s the most wonderful person ever, and she loves Bolt. And he’s awesome, and you’re a monster! How dare you disrupt their relationship with your evil! Die! Die! I can take her, Bolty. Let me at them. Die! Die! Die!”
* “Hey. Can we talk for a second? I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m just a little bit concerned about the number of lunatics on this trip. My limit is one”.
* “Let go, you monster!”
* “Wow. That one felt really super. Wait. No, it didn’t”.
* “You don’t have any superpowers” “I know” “Really?” “Yeah” “Wow. Crazy day for you, huh?” “It’s been a lot. Yes, it has”.
* “Both you boys need serious help!” “Spicy eyes!”
* “This is awesome! This is totally awesome!”
* “There is no home like one you’ve got, cause that home belongs to you!”
* “You’re wrong. She loves me” “No, no, Bolt. That’s what they do, okay? They act like they love you. They act like they’ll be there forever, and then one day they’ll pack up all their stuff and move away and take their love with them, and leave their declawed cat behind to fend for herself! They leave her wondering what she did wrong”.
* “But he doesn’t need us anymore” “Trust me, I’ve seen it a million times before. In the cold, dark night before the battle, when the steely fangs of evil are sharpened and poised to strike, the hero must go and face his greatest challenge alone. But if Bolt’s taught me anything, it’s that you never abandon a friend in a time of need. When your teammate’s in trouble, you go. Whether they ask or not, you go, not knowing if you’re coming back
dead or alive… you go! Knowing how deep the shrapnel’s going to pierce your hide, you go!”
* “You’re my good boy. I love you”.
* “Aliens!” “That is totally unrealistic” “Absolutely ridonculous”.
* “You get the best of both worlds! Chill it out, take it slow, then you rock out the show! You get the best of both worlds! Mix it all together and you know you’ve got the best of both worlds! The best of both worlds!” Disney got a bit cheeky in the “Super Rhino” short.
- Nostalgia Critc; AnimatedKid; The Animation Commendation; Katejohns619; Silver Petticoat; Taestful Reviews; Year Of A Million Disney Dreams; Tor; Jaysen Headley Writes; A113 Animation; All The Disney Movies; A Year With Walt; Healed1337; Coco Hits NY; Manasir53’s Blog; The Middle Distance Runner; Bill’s Movie Emporium; CG Movie Review; Disney Everywhere; The Disney Project; The Art Of Overanalyzing Animation; SimbaSible; Four Out Of Ten Movies; NY Post; Morgan On Media; A Study In Charlatan; Jon Ellison; Dan Owen; Lyle’s Movie Files; CinemaCats; Journeys In Classic Film; Jakebe T. Rabbit; B+ Movie Blog; Dave Examines Movies; BlakeOnline; Opinions Of A Wolf.
* Back Into Action by Advina.