(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White
You know what’s weird? In Irish, there’s no word for “Yes” or “No”.
You know what else is weird? If you ask someone to imagine “a Disney movie” they automatically think of a Princess movie, something like the world of Giselle in Enchanted
. But the Princess movies only make up a small fraction of the canon, 10 movies out of 52. Whereas the talking animal movies comprise a staggering twenty four
movies depending on how you count them (Pinocchio
, no, the two Winnie the Poohs,
yes for our purposes here). So why is it that the Princess movies have such an outsized influence on how the rest of the canon is seen? Well, for whatever reason, it’s the Princess movies that seem to do really well. Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Mulan, Tangled, Frozen
, all really, really huge hits. And even Pocahontas
and Princess and the Frog
were not exactly slouches at the box-office. The talking animal movies, by comparison, tend to perform more modestly. Oh, you’ll get the occasional big hit (Lady and the Tramp
, 101 Dalmatians
, Jungle Book
, The Rescuers
and oh yeah, The Lion King
) but mostly it feels like their role is to just keep things ticking over until the next Princess movie comes along. And that’s just not right, dammit. Disney have done some if their very best work in this sub-genre. Take today’s movie for example, Bolt
, which was released in 2008 and…
Oh my God.
Oh my God, this thing was released in 2008. Obama had been elected by the time this thing came out. I was on Facebook. I was in my current job. I remember this thing coming out as a recent event in my life. It’s just…wow. When I started this blog I was making jokes about Hitler and the Second World War (that came out wrong). I mean, it’s really all coming to an end, isn’t it? Finish line’s in sight.
It’s possible to think of Chicken Little
, Meet the Robinsons
as a trilogy of the “Pixarification” of Disney. Chicken Little
is Disney, trying to be Pixar, Meet the Robinsons
is Disney on its way to becoming
Pixar and Bolt
is basically Pixar. It was produced by John Lasseter and it looks, feels and runs like a Pixar movie. Seriously, they could have slapped a Pixar logo on this and no one would have known the difference. But what kind of Pixar movie is it? Are we talking Toy Story 3
? Or are we talking Cars
Let’s take a look.
Okay, so the movie begins with our hero, Bolt, as a puppy in an animal shelter and my, my, my Disney finally gotten the hang of this CGI business, have we?
Who has beautifully rendered textures? You do! You do! Yes you do!
This opening scene feels very, very Pixar. You could easily imagine a short of just Bolt messing around with the carrot, and then maybe the carrot gets stuck in a vent or something and Bolt has to spend the rest of the running time trying to get it out, and he can’t. And then he’s sad. And then someone gets it out of the vent for him and he’s happy, the end. But instead he’s adopted by a little girl. Hmmm….little girl in a talking animal Disney movie. Legislation stipulates she must be named either “Penny” or “Jenny”. What did they go with?
Penny. Gutsy choice.
As our sweet, innocent heroine, Penny is naturally voiced by America’s wholesome girl next door, Miley Cyrus.
On second thought, 2008 was a looooong time ago.
After Penny adopts Bolt, we then flashforward to 35 dog-years later. Penny gets a call from her father who, in a terrified voice, tells her that there’s been some problems at work and that he’s not going to be able to come home. He tells Penny that Bolt will protect her as he’s given him superpowers because yeah, that sounds totally safe.
Well what do you expect? Judging from that suit, Penny’s father is clearly a member of A.I.M.
Penny and Bolt investigate her father’s disappearence and the man behind it, the villainous Doctor Calico voiced by Malcolm “Oh Christ, can’t I play a good guy just once? Please? No? Fine.” McDowell. With binoculars, they watch from a building across the street as Calico briefs one of his underlings.
“Calico! You magnificent bastard I READ YOUR BOOK!”
They catch one of Calico’s goons and hang him over a bridge until he spills the beans that Calico is hiding out in Bolivia near Lake Rogaguado. And I’m sorry, when it comes to name checking Bolivian lakes, I have a simple rule; Titicaca or GTFO. They then have to make it to the airport whilst avoiding the actual ARMY of soldiers that Calico has deployed to capture them. The two directors of this movie, Chris Williams and Byron Howard, made their bones working on Emperor’s New Groove and Lilo and Stitch respectively and it really shows. There’s a real comic flair at work in this scene, a sense of timing that borders on genius. Take for example one sequence where Bolt blows up one of Calico’s helicopters. We see the explosion four times, from four different angles, three up close and spectacular and the fourth from outside the city, as a tiny little flash that causes a paper cup in the background to tip over with an absolutely perfectly timed “bup” .
They arrive at the airport but Calico has surrounded it with enough men stop them (or indeed, annex the Sudetanland) so Bolt unleashes his superbark, a massive sonic attack that destroys the choopers, the trucks, the motorbikes and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. With all the bad guys defeated. Penny picks up Bolt, telling him he’s saved the day again and they go into a trailer and shut the door behind them. And that’s a wrap. Because you see, Bolt’s not really a superhero, and this is all just a TV show.
I have a minor problem with this. Not the twist itself, as there pretty much wouldn’t be any movie without it. It’s more that the action scenes we see are like something out of Matrix Reloaded, hugely elaborate stunts, entire highways’ worth of moving cars, fleets of helicopters, pyrotechnics…how the hell is all this possible on a TV budget? Now if they said that Bolt was a long-running movie series, fine. In fact, what with Hollywood pumping more and more sequels with ever spiralling budgets it would make perfect sense. Well anyway, minor niggle. So in the editing suite The Director (James Lipton) is looking over the rushes and lambasting his crew because a boom mike made its way into the shot saying “the dog could have seen that!”. A woman asks why that matters and The Director asks who she is, and she explains that she’s Mindy. From the network.
It’s Mindy. From the network.
The Director haughtily explains that Bolt has no idea that everything that’s happening to him is part of a TV show in order to get the most convincing possible performance out of him (cough cough Method bullshit cough cough). See, for Bolt, being a superhero isn’t a TV show, it’s reality. Now, I utterly despise reality television with every fiber of my being, as I hope my recent bombing of the E! studios demonstrated.
Some call me a terrorist.
I consider myself a teacher.
But I have to confess, there is something very intriguing about this kind of Truman Show plot. I think it just gets to that core paranoia that we all have as human beings. How can I trust my own senses? What if everyone’s lying to me? What if I’m not even real? What if I’m just the fictional creation of some half-mad lunatic?
Brrrrr. Gives me chills just thinking about it. Anyway, Mindy from the Network has little time for this nonsense and says that the show is too stale. Every episode gets wrapped up with a nice happy ending, there’s no overall plot progression and no real stakes and she tells The Director that he needs to sort that shit out snappy and MY GOD DISNEY where was this woman during the first season of Agents of SHIELD?
Meanwhile, back in the trailer it’s becoming obvious to Penny that Bolt is getting a little, shall we say, frazzled by constantly having to save her from mortal peril so Penny asks her agent (played with an impressive level of smarm by Greg Germann) if she can take Bolt home with her for the weekend so he has a chance to unwind and not go Full Metal Jacket on everybody. The Agent says “we’ll see” which, as everyone over the age of three knows means “fuck off”.
Left alone in his trailer, Bolt is visited by Veteran Cat (voiced by Diedrich Bader) and *CHARACTER NAME NOT LISTED ON IMDB*, a new cat on the show who’s voiced by *ACTOR NOT LISTED ON IMDB*. VC explains to CNNLOI what Bolt’s deal is and the two cats troll Bolt for lolz. Bolt is voiced by John Travolta and I gotta say, taunting him is probably not a good idea considering he’s got such a slender grip on reality.
No, no. Bolt. BOLT has a slender grip on reality.
This little psychodrama comes to a head during filing of the next episode which ends unexpectedly with Penny being captured by Calico and Bolt being returned to his trailer without managing to save her. This causes Bolt to flip all they way out and then some and when the cats come to mock him some more he actually escapes through the skylight and leads the crew on a merry chase through the studio. He ends up getting knocked out and landing in a box that is then shipped all the way across the country to New York. Bolt runs madly through New York city like a marathon runner who’s in it to win it, searching for Penny. He comes across Vinnie (Lino deSalvo), Joey (Todd Cummings) and Bobbie (Tim Mertens), three New York pigeons who talk like Italian American mobsters and wait just a damn minute here!
Oh my God. Disney, you whores!
Well anyway, the Goodfauxthers help Bolt get his head out of some railings and he asks them where Penny is. They don’t know nothin’, so he says he’ll have to track down a cat who’ll know Calico’s next move. The pidgeons glance slyly at each other, and say they know “just the cat”.
We now meet Mittens, a black alley cat voiced by Susie Essman. Mittens is basically running a protection racket, and has all the local pigeons living in fear of “the claws”. The pigeons have to bring her half their food, and when one of them comes up short she tells him that next week, he has to bring her ALL of his food. This leads to one of my favourite lines of dialogue in anything ever; “Mark my words, Mittens! Someday someone’s going to stand up to you!” Karmic retribution, it turns out, is real quick these days as Bolt pins Mittens against a wall and demands to know where the green eyed man (Calico) is. Mittens, realising that the pigeons have sicced a lunatic on her, tries to bluff her way through but keeps getting details wrong (understandably, as she has no idea what she’s talking about) and Bolt contemptuously says “You just can’t stop lying, can you?” This actually seems to really get to Mittens, who agrees saying “I know. I disgust myself.” Seeing from Bolt’s collar that he’s from Hollywood she gets him to stowaway on a removal truck that’s headed west, saying that that’s where the green eyed man has taken Penny. Bolt then drags Mittens along for the ride and so the smart-talking alley cat and her delusional canine companion set off on their journey wait just a damn minute here…
Really Disney?! Animaniacs again!?
So who’s Bolt going to meet next, movie? A giant chicken trying to pass as a human? A precocious blonde toddler and her sheepdog guardian? A brilliant mouse trying to leverage his incredible intellect into conquering this world of pathetic, ignorant, know-nothing, mouth-breathing, reality TV watching humans?
Look, I’m not saying I agree with his methods. I’m just saying he had some interesting ideas.
Alright, well they get as far as Ohio and Bolt starts getting hungry and freaks out because he’s never had to go without food before and doesn’t know what’s happening.
Really? He’s so well looked after that he’s literally never had a hunger pang? Well anyway, Mittens teaches him how to scam food from the patrons of a local rest stop by going up to them and making puppy eyes. This works really well and soon Mittens and Bolt are eating like kings. And it’s hear that they meet…ladies and gentlemen please rise for one of the most awesome supporting characters in the entire canon…
The Chosen One. Who was foretold to us.
God DAMN I love Rhino (Mark Walton). Rhino is a hamster who spends all day in a plastic ball watching TV and is Bolt’s biggest fan. When he sees Bolt at the rest stop he geeks out completely and begs to be allowed to tage along. When Bolt tells him that Mittens is working for the green eyed man he goes beserk and, I’m not joking, tries to kill her. What makes Rhino so funny is that he is a psychotically deranged individual who just happens to be probably the most harmless thing in existence, a hamster in a ball. Despite this, he has literally no sense of his own limitations which just makes it funnier. There’s a scene where they’re trying to break Mittens out of an animal shelter and they need to get past a security guard. Rhino says “I’ll snap his neck”, which would be terrifying (and Mark Walton really sells the delivery) except, y’know, he’s a HAMSTER IN A PLASTIC BALL and there are just so many reasons why that’s never going to happen. The only possible way Rhino could be more awesome would be if he was voiced by Frank Welker. Anyway, Mittens wants out, realising that this group is just a bi-polar donkey and a meth-addict rooster away from being the Balls Crazy Musicians of Bremen but Bolt refuses to let her go. Rhino has the idea of hitching a lift on a passing train and just before they leap onto it, Mittens asks Rhino how he knows so much about Bolt. He explaisn that he’s seen him on the “magic box” and Mittens finally understands; Bolt is just a TV actor. Jumping onto a passing train from a bridge goes about as well as you go could expect (i.e. they all very nearly end up as rail-kill and Mittens climbs a tree and angrily tells Bolt that he’s not really a superhero. Bolt refuses to believe her and tries to super-bark her out of the tree. Instead, he just ends up attracting the attention of the animal warden and both he and Mittens get caught and thrown in his van, leaving Rhino behind (he’d gone to get a ladder).
Back at the studio, The Agent tries to pass off a new dog as Bolt but Penny sees right through the ruse. Mindy from the Network then comes and tells Penny that they need to start shooting again and she has to let Bolt go. What I really, really like about this scene is that it doesn’t try to make Mindy a villain. She’s obviously sympathetic to Penny’s grief but as she says herself “If we don’t start shooting again, people are going to lose their jobs. Good people. With families.” It’s really rare in children’s movies that someone who’s willing to speak the harsh, unpleasant truth isn’t made into the bad guy. Mindy isn’t shown as being wrong for wanting to Penny to move on from Bolt, and Penny isn’t shown as being wrong for doing so. They’re both doing the responsible thing for the greater good.
Meanwhile, Rhino chases the van from the animal shelter and follows it to a gas station. He finally steps out of his ball and immediately goes mad with power and starts cackling madly. The driver hears him laughing, but only as little hamster squeaks. And those little hamster squeaks were provided, of course, by Frank Welker (who has voiced so many characters, he’s forgotten what his own voice is supposed to sound like).
I do not deserve this. Truly, I am unworthy.
Rhino manages to spring Bolt from the van but Mittens gets taken to the animal shelter. Bolt has finally gotten it though his thick noggin that he’s not really a superhero and that his entire life has been a meticulously maintained lie. Bolt’s confidence has been shattered but Rhino gives him a speech explaining the difference that he’s made to people’s lives and how much he’s inspired him, so Bolt decides to rescue Mittens anyway, powers be damned. They succeed in breaking Mittens out of the shelter with very little trouble. Actually, almost no trouble at all. Just what total incompetent is running this animal shelter anyway?
Oh for the love of…WHO KEEPS HIRING YOU?!
The trio continue on their journey across the country and Mittens takes the time to teach Bolt about just what it means to be a dog, playing fetch, digging for bones and sampling the various aromas of the butt. This is all done to a rather sweet montage that shows Bolt and Mittens becoming closer (as friends, not romantically, because Disney is not about to do DeviantArt’s job for it). In fact, by the time they get to Las Vegas, Mittens shows Bolt a place they can life in a junkyard and has clearly got her heart set on the two of them just settling down together. But Bolt is still dead set on returning to Penny and Mittens angrily drags him in front of a poster advertising the TV show. She says that Penny’s just an actor and that none of his life with her was real (interesting sidepoint, as someone on IMDb pointed out, we don’t even know if Penny is her real name. It’s the name of her character on the show, but neither her mother or her agent ever refer to her by name. So, she could actually be Jenny).
Having our cake and eating it, eh Disney?
Bolt protests that Penny loves him and Mittens answers with the most devastating piece of dialogue in the whole movie; “No, Bolt! That’s what they do, okay? They act like they love you! They act like they’ll be there forever! And then one day they pack up all their stuff and move away, and take their love with them and leave their declawed cat behind to fend for herself! They leave her… wondering… what she did wrong.”
This is, let me be clear on this, a phenomenally written movie. This one little speech suddenly throws a million and one little things that we already know about Mittens in a new, emotionally devastating light. This is why the supposed alley cat knows so much about human domestic life. This is why she constantly talks threateningly about “The Claws” without ever actually showing them. This is why she hates herself for always lying. This is why she generally has a stick up her ass. This is a gut punch. This is a gut punch followed by a shot to the sack a titty twister. And Susie Essman just sells it like ice-cream on a hot day. Brilliant stuff.
Bolt still can’t give up on Penny and leaves Las Vegas alone. Rhino wakes up and asks where Bolt went and Mittens lies and says he had to face the green-eyed man alone. Rhino, of course, is genre savvy enough to know that he and Mittens have to head to LA to rescue Bolt in the final act and they set off after him.
Arriving in LA, Bolt meets three pigeons Tom, his writing partner Blake and their PA Billy. They want to pitch him an idea for his show beacause LA and Blake gives Bolt a one-word pitch; Aliens.
“Pff. I could have though of that.”
Bolt feigns interest (thereby consigning his soul to the special place in Hell for people who feign interest in other people’s writing) and tricks the pigeons into bringing him to the studio. Bolt wanders around the lot, finally seeing the world he’s lived his whole life in from the outside in. He sees Penny and runs to her, but when he sees the fake Bolt running into her arms he realises he’s been replaced and thinks that Penny never loved him. Penny however, is still mourning the real Bolt’s loss, and Mittens sees this as she and Rhino arrive at the studio. Mittens finds Bolt and tries to tell him that she was wrong and that Penny really does love him. Meanwhile, during filming the fake Bolt panics and knocks over a braziere causing the set to catch fire. Bolt runs back and manages to rescue Penny from the Blaze and the two are finally reunited. The Agent starts oozing about how they’re going to spin this near tragedy into a PR coup and Penny quits the show to take Bolt home and finally let him be a normal dog. Penny, Bolt, Rhino, Mittens and Penny’s mother settle down to live an idyllic life amidst the cornfields of Middle America, which as we all know is the closest thing on this earth to Paradise. We then see an episode of the new series of “Bolt”, with new actors playing Penny and Bolt. The episode ends with Penny being abducted by aliens and just how exactly do you pay residuals to a pigeon? Well anyway, Bolt is clearly now less Million Dollar Man and more Doctor Who.
And like Dr. Who, they’ve been recasting the lead of this show since the sixties.
I watched every Disney canon movie in the cinema when it came up right up until, I think, Emperor’s New Groove
and basically ignored every new release after that through my late teens and early twenties. Bolt,
if memory serves, was the first one I say in the cinema after a long eight years where I’d heard increasingly dire pronouncements on the state of the company’s output. I went to see this movie because some friends had told me that Disney was now “back” (they always seem to be “back”, don’t they?). I saw it, and loved it, and felt immensely depressed by it. See, Bolt
is a really, really good movie. Great animation, great characters, wonderful script, a flat out awesome production. But try this little thought exercise. Take one of the great movies of the Disney canon. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty
whatever. Ask yourself this; if Disney had not made that movie, was there another studio that could have? Only Disney could have made Snow White
in 1938. No one else had the talent, the drive, the ambition and the balls to make that mad fever dream a reality. Now ask yourself this. If Disney hadn’t made Bolt
, could anyone else have?
I love this film. But to me, Disney should be making movies that no one else could make. And that’s not what they did here. As you know, I call this period in the canon after the millennium The Lost Era, because was when the studio was searching for their place, for what kind of studio they wanted to be. With this movie they seem to have surrendered and simply said “We want to be Pixar.”
And, hell, there’s far worse things to be. And I love Pixar. But I want Pixar to be Pixar, and I want Disney to be Disney. Join me in four weeks for the Princess and the Frog review, and we’ll see if Disney ever learned to be Disney again.
Finally able to match Pixar at their own game, this is a very strong showing. The designs are great, the textures are beautiful and there is a real sense of verve and impeccable comic timing to the motion.
I’m not usually a fan of Travolta but he’s game here and meshes very well with the character of Bolt.
Yeah, what with Doctor Calico just being a fictional character…I mean, you know, obviously they’re ALL fictional characters, look, the point is there is actually no real villain here. Hey, look at that, Malcolm McDowell finally got to play a character who’s not a villain!
“Yeeesssss…you can trust me now…”
Supporting Characters: 19/20
Really, really strong showing from the supporting characters in this one. Mittens is a fantastic creation; layered, well-written and wonderfully portrayed by Susie Essman. And Rhino? Rhino is flat out one of the funniest characters in the entire canon.
Ohhhh…and we was doin’ so well. Yeah, all that’s really stopping this one from being one of the all time greats is the lack of either any decent songs or a halfway memorable score. Not bad. Just bland.
FINAL SCORE: 79%
NEXT UPDATE: 03 July 2014
NEXT TIME: Yes. It’s true. Unshaved Mouse officially jumps the shark as Mouse bows to the needs of commerce and reviews an all-live action movie. Saddle up, people.
It’s morphin’ time.
Neil Sharpson aka The Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, blogger and comic book writer living in Dublin. The blog updates with a new animated movie review every second Thursday. He’s also serialising his novel The Hangman’s Daughter with a new chapter every other Thursday.