Bolt is the story that saw John Lasseter get comfortable at Disney, exercise some strength and prove his worth.
When Lasseter became involved in the project, Bolt had not yet begun animation but the story was well on its way. It was originally called American Dog, and featured much the same travel-across-America-to-discover-yourself storyline that ended up in Bolt. But it also featured a rabbit deformed from radiation, a dark desert wasteland and a large cat who worked as a junkyard mechanic. It was different, to say the least.
That’s to be expected, though. That story was being produced by Chris Sanders, who had previously created and co-directed Lilo & Stitch.
Lasseter, though, wanted some pretty heavy changes. It needed to be more family-friendly, more emotionally driven, less weird and more adorable. Sanders resisted, though, and was removed from the project and replaced with Chris Williams (writer on The Emperor’s New Groove and Mulan) and Byron Howard (an animator from Mulan, Brother Bear, Lilo & Stitch and Chicken Little). Lasseter, of course, remained executive producer.
The final story is about a young girl and her dog, Penny and Bolt, who become superstars in a popular sci-fi action television show. But Bolt is separated from Penny, he must cross the country to find her, making friends with a ragged alley cat and an exercise ball-bound hamster along the way. Together, they help Bolt learn that even though his super powers aren’t real, friendship is worth far more.
Bolt‘s execution is far more thorough than past films and demonstrates how far the studio had come. Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is a versatile character who demonstrates clear growth throughout the movie. Mittens, the alley cat, is a complex character dealing with her own demons, while Rhino, the hamster, serves his purpose as comic relief while also acting as an ideal role model for the dedication to his friends Bolt needs to learn.
It all adds up to an intricate film where every character must play their part, a hallmark of Pixar if ever there was one.
Bolt earned respect from critics, too, even though they had been especially harsh on the studio in recent years. An 88 per cent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes is not easily accomplished. The New York Times described it aptly:
Bolt, in other words, is a real movie — not a great one, perhaps, but a more organic and thought-out piece of work than the usual animated hodgepodge that lures antsy children and their dutiful parents into the multiplexes. It has its sentimental strains, but it doesn’t push them too hard.
Bolt also did well for the studio financially. On a $150-million budget, Bolt pulled in $309-million worldwide. On opening weekend, it came in third place, behind the first Twilight film and Quantum of Solace.
But as with Ratatouille in 2007, Bolt couldn’t hold a candle to the Pixar release of the year. Wall-E was released just months before and was an artistic wonder that easily stole the Oscar for best animated picture from Bolt and generated nearly twice as much revenue.
Bolt is not a complicated movie. It’s not an especially artistic movie. But it is a good movie, and it is an excellent example of strong storytelling executed well. It’s a crowd pleaser, and at this point in the game, that’s saying something all by itself.