THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Bolt’

The one that you probably forgot existed.

With the much-maligned Michael Eisner gone and the highly-respected Bob Iger now in charge of The Walt Disney Company, spirits within the studio began to rise again in 2006, particularly amongst the animators at Walt Disney Feature Animation. For over a decade, Pixar had been the envy of the animation industry, and now two of its leaders, Edwin Catmull and John Lasseter, were at the helm of leading Disney animation through the difficult transition from traditional animation to fully computer-generated films.

Both Catmull and Lasseter were passionately determined to save the legacy of the department Walt Disney had established in the 1930s, particularly in the wake of several years of box office disappointments and downright failures. While Catmull was adamant in keeping Disney and Pixar distinctly separate studios (projects and personnel were not to be shared), the newly-minted president did bring Pixar’s ethos of a “filmmaker-driven studio” as opposed to the “executive-drive studio” Disney had become under Eisner’s leadership.

In recent years, directors, producers, and animators were subjected to mandatory notes and changes from higher-ranking development executives, which Catmull and Lasseter felt stifled the creative process. Under their new leadership, Disney productions would now receive constructive and, more importantly, non-mandatory feedback from fellow filmmakers, which was how Pixar had operated since its inception in the early 1990s. Lasseter also established a weekly routine of personally meeting with filmmakers and delivering instant feedback, particularly as films entered their final year of production.

To streamline the production process, Catmull removed many “gatekeeper” midlevel executive positions, which he felt simply slowed down the entire animation operation and created an environment of too many cooks in the kitchen. Lasseter set about rehiring a number of veteran Disney filmmakers who had left the studio in recent years after struggling with Eisner’s management style, including directors Ron Clements and John Musker and animators Eric Goldberg, Mark Henn, Andreas Deja, and Chris Buck.

But the most daunting task facing Lasseter was assessing Disney’s current slate of films in various stages of development, including Meet the Robinsons, an adaptation of E. D. Baker’s fairy tale The Frog Princess, and a completely original film centred on an adorable white dog. Under the working title American Dog, the project was the brainchild of director Chris Sanders, the man responsible for Lilo & Stitch, which stood as one of Disney’s few box office successes of recent times.

In Sanders’ original narrative, American Dog focused on a famous TV dog named Henry, who finds himself stranded in the middle of the Nevada desert with an oversized, radioactive rabbit and a grouchy, one-eyed cat, which Henry mistakenly believes is merely the plot of the latest episode of his television series. As he did with Meet the Robinsons, Lasseter requested a test screening of American Dog to access its progress. And, just like Meet the Robinsons, Lasseter was not impressed with what he was shown and subsequently provided Sanders with a lengthy list of constructive changes.

By all accounts, Sanders was not impressed with Lasseter’s feedback and bluntly refused the proposed changes, leading to his removal from the project in December 2006. In March 2007, Sanders negotiated an end to his contract with Disney and joined rival DreamWorks Animation, where he would direct the hugely successful animated titles How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods. In a curious twist of fate, Sanders’ 2020 live-action directorial debut Call of the Wild would ultimately be distributed by Disney, after the studio’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox in 2019.

With Sanders gone, Lasseter assigned screenwriter Chris Williams and animator Bryon Howard to co-direct the languishing project. Williams was chosen due to his history with successfully saving The Emperor’s New Groove from development hell, while Howard had been working as a supervising animator on American Dog and keenly understood the project. Despite the fact computer-animated films generally required four years to develop and animate, Lasseter informed Williams and Howard they had only 18 months to complete the project.

With the assistance of screenwriter Dan Fogelman, Williams and Howard quickly set about reworking the entire concept. While the trio kept the concept of a television dog confusing real life for a fictitious production, they pushed the conceit further by moving the setting to a Hollywood studio where the pooch, now renamed Bolt, is purposely misled by the show’s director into believing he’s blessed with superpowers to achieve a level of absolute realness during filming.

When the faithful dog mistakenly believes his “owner” Penny has been kidnapped, Bolt sets out on a daring adventure to rescue her. After being inadvertently shipped to New York City, Bolt forces a street-wise alley cat named Mittens to help him navigate his way back to Los Angeles, with the pair eventually joining forces with a rambunctious, TV-obsessed hamster named Rhino, who just happens to be Bolt’s biggest fan. When Williams and Howard presented the new concept to Lasseter, he approved the changes on the spot, and Bolt sped into production to meet its looming deadline.

For the film’s visual aesthetic, Williams and Howard were heavily inspired by the work of American realist painter Edward Hopper (you’d likely be familiar with his famous 1942 canvas painting Nighthawks and/or Gottfried Helnwein’s 1984 reimagining Boulevard of Broken Dreams), with the film ultimately mirroring Hopper’s distinctive style of fading detailing in the foreground to the background to create a painterly look and feel. The film’s cinematography style was inspired by Oscar-winner Vilmos Zsigmond, particularly his work on Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

The animation utilised new advances in non-photorealistic rendering technology, which gave the overall film a more polished appearance than Disney’s two previous computer-generated animated films, Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons. To craft the film’s 3D backgrounds, the company artists created new patented technology designed specifically for the film, which was able to design environments which looked as though they had been hand-painted by brushstroke.

From the moment Williams and Howard took over the production of Bolt, the co-directors only had one voice in mind for the titular dog; John Travolta. When Travolta was offered the role, he leapt at the opportunity, with the actor having long-wished to voice a Disney animated character. For the role of Bolt’s owner and best friend Penny, the co-directors enlisted one of Disney’s biggest stars in Miley Cyrus, who was currently starring on the hugely-popular Disney Channel television show Hannah Montana. The pair also recorded an original song “I Thought I Lost You” to be played during the end credits, which was co-written by Cyrus with country music producer Jeffrey Steele.

For the role of Rhino the hamster, animator Mark Walton recorded temporary vocals to be used as references for preliminary animation. However, Walton’s lively performance fit the character perfectly, and Williams and Howard couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. The co-directors kept their decision a secret until Walton was invited to a recording session for what he thought was merely more test vocals. When he was handed the script for his session, the directors had sneakily included the line, “…and Mark Walton is the voice of Rhino!”

Bolt was released on November 21, 2008, to the best reviews for a Disney animated feature in years. The New York Times praised the film for managing “to be frisky, funny and inventive enough to engage the attention of grown-ups as well as children,” The Hollywood Reporter called it “a notable step up for Walt Disney Animation Studios,” and The Guardian hailed the film as “tremendously lovable and funny stuff.”

Much to Disney’s relief, Bolt proved to be a box office winner, grossing $114 million in the U.S. and a further $195 million internationally for a respectable worldwide total of $310 million. While this result wasn’t on the same level as 2008’s other animated blockbusters, WALL·E ($550 million) and Kung-Fu Panda ($631 million), it was almost double the worldwide gross of Meet the Robinsons and proof Disney was capable of producing a computer-animated hit.

Despite its critical and commercial success at the time, Bolt has strangely vanished from the pop culture zeitgeist over the past 12 years. Perhaps that’s due to the unfortunate virtue of the film being released in the same year as something so artistically groundbreaking as Pixar’s WALL·E or as staggeringly popular as DreamWorks’ Kung-Fu Panda. Bolt stood on the cusp of Disney’s second Renaissance period and it seems most have forgotten how the film laid the foundation for future success stories like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen.

The influence of Lasseter and Pixar is on display in practically every frame of Bolt, with the film’s narrative, characterisations, and visuals borrowing heavily from the studio who redefined the very genre of animated films. The film’s animation represented a tremendous improvement over Disney’s first two bumbled attempts at computer animation, and it’s clear Lasseter pushed the animators to craft dazzling visuals more akin to what Pixar had been pumping out for over a decade.

With its impressive mix of entertainment and emotion, Bolt is a film that knows how to capture your attention with action-packed sequences but is keenly aware when to pull back and hit you with emotional moments that clearly follow Pixar’s magic formula. There’s plenty of silliness to make young ones roar with laughter, but also a dash of adult humour that will fly right over their heads. Again, this was something Pixar had been achieving for years, but Disney hadn’t quite got it right unit now.

After years of disappointing fare, Bolt pushed Disney back to its golden heyday of the early 1990s, though falling just short of being something truly masterful. There’s an endless stream of plot holes in this film, particularly the enormous suspension of disbelief required to believe an entire Hollywood production would kowtow to a director’s bizarre wish to elicit a believable performance from a dog by producing a television series in such illogical fashion. But it’s easy to overlook such quibbles when the end result is so genuinely enjoyable.

With an array of truly endearing characters and a heartwarming narrative that will touch the hearts of all dog lovers, Bolt is an underrated gem that deserves more attention and kudos than it receives. It’s endlessly fun and terribly sweet, even if very little of the film is even remotely believable. Sure, Disney were still yet to produce anything on the same level as its Pixar rivals, but Bolt marked a genuine turning point for the studio and it’s only uphill from here.

Is Bolt a Disney Classic? It’s rather unfathomable Bolt has all but disappeared from the public’s attention since its initial release. Perhaps it’s simply been lost amongst the far-superior films that proceeded it. Bolt may not quite be a Disney Classic, but it’s a solid little film that gave the studio the confidence to keep striving forward with computer animation.

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