Notes on Bolt

Saw Bolt yesterday. Before the screening they gave everyone a promotional deck of playing cards featuring development artwork from the film. Aren’t the pencil images of the lead characters (above) beautiful. I really wanted to see that movie.

Instead I saw the CG version (and I saw it flat, not in Disney Digital 3D). What did I think? First off, let me recommend that all Cartoon Brew readers see this feature. It’s definitely a good solid family film and an improvement (story-wise) over Chicken Little and Meet The Robinsons. I don’t know all the behind-the-scenes problems – but I’m aware John Lasseter got involved, the director was replaced, the film was reworked and pushed through production in eighteen months.

The first ten or 15 minutes of the film is pure action. I’m talkin’ Incredibles, 007, Jason Bourne-style fast cutting with wild stunts, chases, explosions, cliff-hangers and a dog with super powers. Could Brad Bird have had a hand in this section? This was exciting stuff. Actually, this action-packed opening sequence is preceded by a heart-tugging opening scene that shows Bolt being adopted several years earlier.

Following the action set-piece, the film then goes to great lengths to explain the set-up: Bolt is the star of a TV show who is motivated to “act”, by his director (James Lipton, a nice touch), because he believes the situations (and his super-powers) are real. Before you can say “deus ex machina”, Bolt is accidently shipped to New York and the remainder of the film is taken up with his journey back to Hollywood, his traveling companions, and his realization that he isn’t who he thinks he is.

John Travolta does a great job as Bolt’s voice. Susie Essman (from Curb Your Enthusiasm, as Mittens the alley cat) and Disney story artist Mark Walton (as a fanboy hamster) deserve kudos as the true co-stars of the picture. I suppose I should mention Miley Cyrus. Her part is much smaller despite it being the pivotal role of Bolt’s human master. Does anyone know if Miley was in this film from day one – or did she replace another actress and was shoehorned into the production after the success of Hannah Montana?

The film hits all the right notes as the characters trek across America and have numerous adventures. The climactic rescue of Penny from a burning Hollywood sound stage is also quite effective. The production has all the polish we’ve come to expect from a Disney (or Pixar) production (including the now-requisite 50s stylized 2D end titles) – however there were several little things that kept pulling me out of the film. For one, the film’s settings (in the old days we’d say “the backgrounds”) are mainly photo-real, but are sometimes painted. There’s one scene in New York, where Bolt is staring at the back of a U-Haul truck. My eye was distracted by the unrealistic painting of the truck’s poorly rendered license plate.

Another thing got to me… there’s a dialogue scene between Bolt and Mittens in a field in Las Vegas. I admired how they got the intense Nevada daytime sunlight just right. But the dialogue track took me out of the scene. The characters sounded like they were in a recording booth – not in a Las Vegas field. I’ve never thought about this before seeing this scene – but couldn’t dialogue for an important outdoor scene actually be recorded outside? It would’ve added touch of realism to the situation.

But these are just tiny nit-picks. Overall, I really enjoyed the film – especially its digs at the behind the scenes world of network television production. Bolt is a lot of fun, and a good step in the right direction as Disney continues to rebuild its brand in Feature Animation. I’m rooting for Bolt, and the studio, to succeed.

P.S. to Disney brass: I still wouldn’t mind seeing a hand drawn version of Bolt as depicted in the development art. Could such an idea be in the cards – and not just in the playing cards?


  • http://doubleben.blogspot.com Emmett Goodman

    I will take your word for it Mr. Beck, and go see the movie. I still wish Chris Sanders was still involved, as I have not seen anything new (animation-wise) from him in a long time.
    I’m still a little put off by the loud promotion of the actors, as I still wish there was some mystique.
    Nice review, Mr. Beck.

  • Aleksandar Vujovic

    Great review Jerry! Can’t wait to see the flick. I hope I like the film.

  • Andrew

    When will we start seeing the visual designer as the director?

    I vowed never to see this film just because everyone knows how it would’ve been if Chris Sanders was still aboard. But I know that was a bit harsh of me, and I’ll reconsider.

  • Steve Gattuso

    If the film is successful enough, then Disney could always do a 2-D TV series that would be the “real” TV show that the film is based on. Same as they did for Buzz Lightyear.

    Not sure where they’d fit in the hamster…

  • http://Mr.FunsBlog Floyd Norman

    I used to catch a lot of flack from Disney guys because I was critical of their recent efforts. I wasn’t doing this to be mean — I simply wanted Disney animated films to be good again. Plus, I knew they could do it.

    “Bolt” is proof that they CAN do it.

  • Sam Filstrup

    Glad to hear they’ve atleast improved over the last movies, I’ll probably go and see this, free time would only be the issue.

  • a reader

    “Could Brad Bird have had a hand in this section?”

    No.

  • http://www.jessica-plummer.com Jessica Plummer

    Nice review Jerry; I have moderate expectations for this – it looks cute and fun. Not everything has to be a groundbreaking experience, so I look forward to seeing this. Those drawings ARE wonderful! Though I think they did a fine job of getting what they could into the CG models…I guess you can only do so much (and I’m sure some 2D designs just don’t look right in 3D). Maybe they could make a Bolt short in 2D out of those designs like Your Friend the Rat did after Ratatouille.

  • EHH

    I wish I could see a 2D version too. Nevertheless, I will defenantly see this film because of your recommendation. Thank you.

  • Thomas

    Yes, Miley was shoehorned in.

  • MattSullivan

    This film looks better with every preview.

  • dan

    I saw Bolt this weekend too and I was completely blown away! I really couldn’t believe how much I loved it. SO much action and fun and…heart!! I thought the art direction was awesome and I LOVED the characters. Sincerely the best movie Disney has done since Lilo….actually, I liked Bolt better than Lilo and I thought that movie was great!!

  • http://deleted OtherDan

    This sounds promising. My finger is back on the “buy” trigger on Etrade. I also wish it were 2D though, based on the those drawings. As an aside: I saw Madagascar 2 this weekend, and it was pretty funny albeit too loud! (…and I missed the lazy eyed penguin)

  • acetate

    Since many have commented about their desire to see this as a 2-d hand drawn film it begs the question..”How exactly is it decided which film will be done 3-d as opposed to 2-d?” Is there any real criteria?

  • Nic Kramer

    Thanks for the review, Jerry. I had no doubt in John’s direction of production. Okay, maybe a little, but it looks like we have nothing to worry about now. They said the animation studio is in good hands now and I’m begaining to believe it.

  • elan

    Yes, Miley was shoehorned in. Remember the voice of young Penny at the beginning of Bolt (the adoption scene)? THAT was the original voice, and it was much better.

    But Miley will bring the butt’s to the seats (or at least until word gets out just how good the film is)

  • Mike

    It still sounds like Buzz Lightyear as a dog to me.

  • Julian Carter

    Mike, I doubt that is the case. Granted, that’s what everyone thought back when the story details were revealed. But in Toy Story, Buzz’s revelation was one of the film’s climaxes and turning points. Although the same thing seems to happen to Bolt, I expect it will happen midway into the movie, and will not be the pivotal part of the storyline. There must be another twist.

  • Hulk

    Hey Mike,
    You’re absolutely right. There were a lot of similarities between this and Toy Story in that Bolt believed he really was a superhero and had a rude awakening like Buzz Lightyear did. There were also elements of ‘the Truman Show’ and ‘the Long Journey Home’. It also reminded me of ‘Oliver and Co.’ not just because it’s about stray animals in NYC but also because of the timeliness of it. Bolt like Oliver is very good though not ground breaking and also is the first step back toward glory for Disney animation just like Oliver was 20 some years ago.

    I agree with Jerry that the settings were too literal especially when compared to the more cartoony animals but it wasn’t jarring.

    Also I wish there was a little more diversity in the design of the Humans. The side characters were more interesting than the main ones. Most of the main human character looked Irish to me…with high cheek bones, a fair complexion and a turned up nose. Got a little monotonous….but like Jerry I’m just nitpicking.

    Rhino stole the show and Mark Walton’s voice made that character. The pigeons were also really well done. Well designed and well acted.

    I look forward to more from Disney. 2D, 3D, stop motion and whatever else.

    Congrats.

  • Gobo

    I fear that a lot of the audience for this will remember the similarly-themed 101 Dalmatians II… Thunderbolt? Bolt? Hmm.

  • Andrew

    “I fear that a lot of the audience for this will remember the similarly-themed 101 Dalmatians II… Thunderbolt? Bolt? Hmm.”

    That’s another reason why I initially ignored it- the story is modeled on a Saturday-morning cliche.

    But other than 101 Dalmations, it seemed since the beginning of Disney that whenever they tried to prove themselves after a slew of mediocre fillms, they turned to DOGS as the protagonists. Oliver and Company signaled the dawn of the new Renaissaunce. Just an interesting observation.

  • Thaddeus

    Does this mean Mark Walton’s gonna get thirty million bucks for doing a feature voice, like Cameron Diaz will (through her back end profit participation) in “Shrek the Third?” Way to go, Mark!

  • Debbie

    Disney are doing sneak previews of BOLT in major markets this Saturday night for those of you who can’t wait another week to see it.

  • Rio

    Debbie, is there a web site with a listing of theaters for this Saturday’s sneak peaks?

  • Mr. Semaj

    My only minor problem with what I’ve seen so far is that some of the character designs lack appeal. Even the cat and the hamster lose a little of it in their CGI incarnations.

    Everything else is indicative that this is going to be a fun film.

  • http://danielsdoodlez.blogspot.com Jpox

    I saw a preview on television last night, Did they happen to re-design the three “Goodfeathers-look-a-like” pigeons from the original trailer into two white doves? Or are they separate characters all together?

  • Andrew Kieswetter

    I have several questions to ask regarding BOLT;

    1.Is it Best Animated Feature material?

    2.Are there any bears in it?

    I’m looking forward to seeing it.

  • Debbie

    Rio, I only know about the BOLT sneaks because I work for a national theater chain and our programmers confirmed the sneaks today. My advice is to check your local theater website for info – ours usually has the weekend information updated by Wednesday afternoon for the upcoming week . ( and yes, 3D sneaks are scheduled where available )

  • http://www.shamoozal.com Frank

    so, jerry gives a positive review of “bolt”, which has been nothing short of torn to shreds around here, and now everyone can’t wait to see it and “just how promising it looks”? very telling.

  • http://www.dfdean.com David D

    I had an unusual reaction to the two extended clips that are currently online; the first one I saw was the rescue of the cat from the shelter, and I unexpectedly loved it — funny, exciting, beautifully directed. Suddenly, after the less-than-inspiring trailer, I wanted to see this movie. And then I watched the second clip, which is a chase scene from what I presume is the opening of the film, and my enthusiasm just deflated. It seemed so flat, so unimaginative and (I think I’m inventing a word) un-visceral. I’ll still go, I think, but I hope I don’t run as hot-and-cold as I feel right now.

  • Adam

    Frank, that’s ridiculous. The storyboard to CGI scenes were compared and found lacking, along with several character designs (and rightly so on both counts), but neither of those can be considered “torn to shreds”.
    From what I’ve heard about Sanders version, it’s a good thing his story never saw the light of day. Remember who’s in charge, after all.

  • a reader

    I can’t understand what “Frank” is implying. That CB readers are sheep?
    As to the recap by “Adam”: “The storyboard to CGI scenes were compared and found lacking, along with several character designs (and rightly so on both counts)“. ONE storyboard panel was “compared” to a corresponding frame of film and roundly hashed and overanalyzed here on Cartoon Brew. “Scenes” plural is a misstatement. In any case to judge the early, static components of a motion picture as justifiable proof of that film’s success as a filmgoing experience is bizarre-akin to reviewing film costumes on mannequins rather than seeing the costumed actors directed, acting and photographed onscreen. So, wrongly so on both counts.

    “Bolt” has technical excellence and heart, and best of all genuinely funny, wonderful character moments. The superbly done action sequences are the work of the directors, Byron Howard and Chris Williams and their animators and crew. Simply because their names aren’t as well known here (yet) as some other animation directors doesn’t mean they aren’t just as capable and talented as those others. Everyone has to do a first feature sometime, and this one is a great beginning. Bolt aims to entertain, and it succeeds.

  • mitten

    On a lighter note, me thinks there was an episode of Chip N’ Dale: Rescue Rangers with much of the same premise as Bolt (television hero-dog lives in a fantasy world, then must wake up to the real world etc).

  • http://elblogderg.blogspot.com Roberto

    I think it will be good but I’m not especially excited about it. I’m sure I’d have enjoyed Chris Sanders version more, with the story problems and all. That said, the only CGI scene I’ve watched with Sanders’ design didn’t work as well as the new designs. It would have been great to watch Sanders’ designs in 2D. Even these new designs in 2D look better like Jerry says.

    The story looks enjoyable and I probably wouldn’t mind if I’d never seen the original concepts, but now the characters look very dull to me. Cute and pretty well animated, but dull and boring to look at.

    Anyway I enjoyed the chase scene preview and I’ll probably find the movie interesting. I thought Meet The Robinsons was pretty decent and most of their characters look pretty generic as well.

  • http://www.shamoozal.com frank

    “A reader”: i’m not implying anything. i’m coming straight out and saying it. most comments around here go with the tone of whatever is being posted.

    “adam”: really? it wasn’t picked apart simply because a handful of concept images done by chris sanders a few years ago wasn’t the direction that the film eventually took?

  • elan

    Hey Jpox, to answer your question, those are different characters. I dont want to say too much more or else it’ll spoil it

  • http://daryl-rhystaylor.blogspot.com Daryl T

    I’ll take your word on it Jerry. I have to wait a while though.

  • Talita

    I’m sure all the movies directed by Buzz and Woody to John Lasseter are and will be good!

  • http://e-9.deviantart.com eeedel

    Ill be sure to go see it… as soon as netflix has it available.

  • Justin

    In the Chip N’ Dale episode Dale, like Rhino, thought that his television hero was real. Dale was devastated when he learned that he was just an actor, and actually a very cowardly actor. The dog knew he was an actor on a t.v. show. By the end of the episode the dog had redeemed himself by doing something heroic.

  • http://ryuuseipro.deviantart.com John Paul Cassidy

    I’m already planning to see this film, but Jerry’s review made it sound even more exciting than I thought it would be! I already liked what I saw and have no problems (I usually love Pixar & Disney’s human character designs).

    Undoubtedly, what happened to Chris Sanders’ AMERICAN DOG was akin to what happened to Richard Williams’ THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER, but one thing’s for certain; BOLT must be a million fold times better than THE PRINCESS AND THE COBBLER/ARABIAN KNIGHT! (The former is reasonably tolerable, and the latter is absolutely unwatchable.)

    I have the Golden Books BOLT storybook, which, IMHO, looks even better than the movie itself! I’m really loving Disney/Pixar’s retro-style art in their Golden Books adaptations.

  • Mark Bourne

    Since the cluster of Chicken Little and having avoided all CG films that didn’t start with the Pixar logo, I might give this a chance. Based on the pencil art shown here, I would have rather seen a 2D hand drawn feature.

  • Mark Morgan

    I’m not planning to see Bolt. That said, it will probably be a decent film that will make money and a lot of people will enjoy it. When John Lassenter first came on the scene with Toy Story, he was seen as someone revisiting much of what Disney had lost and so he is. He’s brought that back to Disney and he’s doing all right with it, but all he’s doing is maintaining the status quo of what good animated features are today. He does that very well and it delights a lot of people, myself occassionally.

    The problem I have is that animation needs to grow. It needs to grow in terms of story content and story diversity. I’m far more concerned with Bolt feeling like something I’ve already seen or being very similar to such, than I am with the design. Have you seen Watership Down? Very stiff rabbits populate that movie much of the time, and are not nearly as life like or interesting to watch as the ones in films like Brother Bear, but personally I’ll take Watership Down over BB anytime because it feels different! It’s an interesting story the likes of which I haven’t beheld in animation before!

    I can’t help it. I feel cartoons should be diverse! There should be something for everyone, those who care more about story than design and vice versa. I know some of you are wondering why I even bother with toons if I care more about good writing. There’s plenty more diversity in live action films, you might say.

    My answer: I’ll take crappy animation over live action anyday, because animation is still animation and its a lot more fun to watch.

    Nuff said.

  • Chuck R.

    I’m not exactly surprised at the number of animation aficionados out there who think it’s a cardinal sin for Pixar/Disney to stay close to the successful “house style” they pioneered and perfected. The fact that these same people heap praise on the same studios for co-opting the “Mary Blair style” and regurgitating it in publication after publication, leaves me scratching my head.

    Mark Morgan,
    I share your enthusiasm for Watership Down —a great book that never got the proper film treatment. When Peter Jackson took on King Kong after his great success with LOTR, I drew up a “fantasy” list of other films that deserved to be remade in full Weta splendor. Watership Down tops the list. (It would have to be realistic, but can you imagine that great Hubley mythology sequence re-imagined by the likes of Nico Marlet, James Baxter or G. Del Toro?)