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A blend of Disney and Pixar.
Walt Disney Pictures Presents "Bolt."
OPENING WEEKEND: $35,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $135,000,000
OTHER PREVIEWS: Man About Town (5/10)
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

September 22nd, 2008: Bolt, a German Shepherd, has lived his whole life on the set of his action TV show, where he believes he has superpowers. When separated from the studio by accident, he meets Mr. Mittens (actually a female cat) and a hamster named Rhino. Along the way, he learns that he doesn't have superpowers and that the show is not realistic.

What to Expect: Strange things are afoot in the world of feature-length animation.

For most of the history of animated films, there was only one game in town: Disney. These days, Disney Features Animation rates a distant third behind Pixar and Dreamworks... with the caveat that actually Disney owns Pixar, although the latter operates more-or-less independently. Come to think of it, pretty much everyone is eating Pixar's dust. If they hadn't made the Shrek films, Dreamworks would be back there in the loser brigade with everyone else.

Article continues below

It's easy to get confused. I'm sure most people barely realize that Disney and Pixar are two different studios. After all, that CG Disney castle appears at the beginning of Pixar films, right? True. It is a little unusual to have two studios owned by the same company in direct competition for filmgoer's dollars, but there you have it. It's a tribute to Pixar's leverage that CEO Steve Jobs was able to carve out a merger that mostly preserved Pixar's independence. In addition, John Lasseter, a longtime fixture at Pixar and director of several of their most successful films, was handed the job of overseeing Disney Features Animation along with Ed Catmull.

Now, it's no secret that Disney Features Animation is in big bad heaps of trouble. Their last successful film was "Tarzan," and that's coming up on nearly ten years ago. Their forays into CG animation have met with very limited success, if you can even call it that. They are regularly clobbered by Pixar and Dreamworks films, and there are more players in the animated-features game entering the field all the time. The glory days of "Beauty and the Beast" are long over, and Disney took their sweet time changing over to CG animation, holding onto traditional animation for a very long time even while pioneering new techniques, like the Deep Canvas technique used to render 3D backgrounds for "Tarzan." But Lasseter and Catmull have inherited a studio struggling for continued relevance. Several films (like "Meet the Robinsons") were already in the pipeline for release and out of their hands, but they knew that the first film they oversaw directly would need to perform well.

Which brings us to "Bolt." A little animated feature with a long, twisted history.

Back in 2005, Chris Sanders, director of "Lilo & Stitch" and writer on several of Disney's most successful traditionally animated films, began work on a film he called "American Dog." It was a quirky, stylized tale of a TV star dog who drank martinis on set and played high-roller poker in Vegas, until he's lost in the Nevada desert and must find his way home with the help of a one-eyed cat and a freakishly large rabbit. The art was interesting and creative, and many animation fans were excited to see the film.

Until 2006, when Sanders was yanked from the project at Lasseter and Catmull's request. Early test screenings had shown the film to be too adult, too sophisticated, and they wanted a more mainstream, kid-friendly film for a holiday release. They brought on the new directors, and the story was renovated from the ground up. Now, stills and clips from the film which is now titled "Bolt" reveal a product that looks absolutely nothing like what Sanders envisioned. The barest bones of the story are still there...Bolt is still the star of a TV show... but the setting and the other characters have been changed. Bolt is now a superpowered dog on TV, owned by a 12 year old girl, Penny, with whom he fights crime. One day Bolt is mistakenly shipped to New York from Los Angeles and must find his way back... except he doesn't realize that his powers aren't real, and that he isn't a crimefighter. His friends are now a cat named Mittens and a hamster inside a plastic rolling ball. The film has been retooled, some would say bastardized, to remove Sanders' quirkier, more adult elements in order to deliver that mainstream film that could give Disney a much-needed box office hit.

Except that isn't the real reason.

According to a number of sources, the real reason "American Dog" was reworked and Sanders given the heave-ho was that the film had been designed to be a CG animated film, and Lasseter and Catmull had decided that Disney Features Animation ought to concentrate solely on traditional, 2D animation. Presumably this was a move to remove the element of competition between Disney and Pixar. Pixar would handle the CG features, Disney would revert back to 2D, which they'd always done so fantastically, even if recent efforts had failed. So the entire project had to be redesigned.

Except... it's still a CG film. "Bolt" is not a traditionally-drawn feature, it's computer-drawn.

I'm confused. As recently as 2007, it was being reported that Disney was abandoning CG animation. Yet here we have "Bolt," an aggressively CG film. In fact, Disney developed several new CG techniques specifically for the film. They are stylizing the backgrounds in an intentionally artistic way using a technique called "non-photorealistic rendering." Traditional CG rendering is intended to make everything look as realistic as possible, but this techniques emphasizes stylistics. Making something look handpainted, for example, or exceptionally stylized. These techniques were used in "300" and rotoshop films like "Waking Life." The backgrounds of "Bolt" are intended to look like painterly backdrops, inspired by artist Edward Hopper.

So which is it, Disney? They do have a 2D film in the pipeline, next year's "The Princess and the Frog," but their two films after that, "Rapunzel" and "King of the Elves," are CG animated. Looks like the whole "back to traditional animation" idea didn't pan out. Which leads me to believe that either they changed their minds and decided to keep going with CG, or Sanders' oust and the retooling of "American Dog" were indeed motivated by marketplace concerns. Whatever the reason, it's certainly a different film. In my opinion, "Bolt" looks far more generic and... well, Disneyfied than "American Dog" would have been. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it's just sad.

So let's talk voice actors, who can make or break an animated film. One thing Pixar does very well, among many things they do very well, is cast voice actors. They have internalized what Disney stubbornly has refused to learn, namely that screen actors do not necessarily make good voice actors. It's quite a different animal, voice acting, and just because someone's a big successful actor doesn't mean they can do it well. Those who can are usually comic actors, like Billy Crystal or John Goodman, because those actors know about timing. Disney also labors under the huge misconception that big-name talent as voice actors will bring people in. Guess what? If we can't see them, we don't care. It doesn't matter if it's Mel Gibson's voice in "Pocohontas," I don't see Mel Gibson onscreen. So Disney continues to cast A-list actors in parts just for the novelty of it, it seems, instead of finding good voice actors for the roles.

So in "Bolt" we have a white German shepherd, the title character. An action hero, going on adventures, saving the little girl he belongs to, getting up to madcap hijinks, no doubt. To me that sounds like it needs a young, vibrant voice, mid-range, maybe with a slightly boyish quality. So who do they cast? John Travolta. Now, I'm not hating on Travolta, here. But a boyish, heroic voice he ain't. In fact, he's kind of nasal with that lingering whiff of Brooklyn. He just sounds like a paunchy middle-aged guy, which is what he is. And in the role of Penny, the girl who owns Bolt, they cast... Miley Cyrus. Of course they did, because God forbid Disney take one single step without involving her and the eight gojillion tween girls who eagerly lap up her every waking action. And whaddya bet that Miley will be singing some forgettable pop tune that we can be tortured by over the closing credits? I will bet you my limited-edition double-disc DVD of "Tarzan" that she will. It's telling that the character people are responding to the most positively is the hamster, who is voiced by some animator who did the rough track and then got the permanent gig. Yep, keep hiring those A-listers, Disney. Way to spend your money wisely.

In the end, "Bolt" has been made by very creative people with proven track records for successful animated films, but they're walking shaky ground at Disney, who desperately want some of that magical Pixar fairy dust to drift over in their direction. Lasseter is stretched so thin he barely has time to floss, and frankly, I'm more worried about Pixar than Disney. The idea was for Pixar's talent and creativity to boost Disney, not for Disney's hidebound story-by-committee to dilute Pixar's enthusiasm.

Will "Bolt" be any good? I think it might be. I admit, I had a higher opinion of it before I saw the old art from "American Dog" and what "Bolt" could have been. "Bolt" could be a charming, funny talking-dog story...or another "Chicken Little." Nobody wants that.

In Conclusion: In the turbulent environment of feature animation, it's all about what you put up there on the screen, and without the faces of popular actors, the story and how you tell it becomes even more important. "Bolt" is the mutated offspring of an idea that was sacrificed on the altar of corporate strategy, regardless of which reason is the truth, and as a creative person that makes me nervous. Whenever creative decisions are motivated by business concerns, it tends to backfire. "Bolt" has been mainstreamed, but too much? Will it end up just another forgettable animated feature, the latest in a long list of Disney's milquetoast failures? Or will it revitalize the studio? I'd like to think it'll be the latter, but I'm about 75% sure it'll be the former. In this marketplace, it's no longer enough just to be cute and sweet. It's not enough to be Disneyfied. You've got to be creative, you've got to be clever, you've got to be snarky and a little edgy. Pixar's films aren't successful because they're generic to appeal to everybody, they're successful because they're sharply written and endlessly creative. The making of "Bolt" just seems like the antithesis.

Similar Titles: Over the Hedge, Open Season, Meet the Robinsons
November 21st, 2008 (wide)
March 24th, 2009 (DVD)

Walt Disney Pictures

Chris Williams, Byron Howard

John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, Mark Walton

Total: 99 vote(s).

Animation, Comedy, Kids & Family

Click here to view site

Rated PG for some mild action and peril.

96 min




Bolt at Trailer Addict

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