Bolt is a Disney film from 2008, which was made just after their acquisition of Pixar, which seems to have led to them gaining some expertise in digital animation. More than the animation, however, the story is also strong and quite interesting and definitely not what I expect from Disney.
Bolt is voiced by John Travolta and was a puppy, taken from a shelter, and adopted by a girl so he could star in a tv show of the same name. However, because he lives on the set and his entire reality is his star trailer and the tv show, he has come to believe that the events in the tv show are all real. And in the tv show he has super powers . . .
It’s a bit like the Truman Show crossed with The Misfits and WE3. It’s not the sort of premise I particularly expect from an in house Disney animation. It’s not easy to encapsulate, for a start. It is, however, very good. It leads to a lot of humour as Bolt struggles to work out why his powers aren’t working. It also allows for a brilliant extended opening where we have a powers display and a preposterously expensive looking action sequence. No tv show could actually afford to be that good.
Bolt’s handler/owner is a girl called Penny, who is struggling with being a child star and the way that she is manipulated and groomed. Again, this is interesting for Disney. Disney has a track record of creating child stars who struggle (to various degrees) to have anything approaching a semblance of a normal life and tend to go off the rails as they become adults. The most famous example is Lindsay Lohan, but the voice of Penny is Miley Cyrus, someone who has suffered with this also.
Firstly, Bolt’s character design is excellent. So is the design of the other main animal characters and the various animals they meet along the way. The animals also have great personalities, with sympathetic traits, their own chance to be funny in distinct ways and even character arcs (well, apart from Rhino the Hamster). Even the pigeons that keep popping up as expositional and plot devices have their own distinct character and personalities. Most of the humans, too, are distinct and interestingly designed. Unfortunately the one exception seems to be Penny, who is somehow underwhelming and possibly left for the intended audience to project themselves onto.
Bolt is a sympathetic and likeable lead, even when he is delusional. His motives are pure and uncomplicated, and his delusional response to adversity is endearing. Even when he finds out the truth, he copes believably. Mittens, the slightly embittered cat, is also a great character.
I have to admit I was surprised by how good Bolt was, I wrote it off as a quick cash grab and it is a film of surprising complexity and genuinely heart-warming. It is also often very funny. It isn’t as strong as the better Pixar films, but it beats many of Dreamworks’ offerings.