The 2000s were not a good decade for Walt Disney Animation Studios. After having a string of successful films in the 90s with the Disney Renaissance which led way to some of the greatest animated films of all time, they really took a big step backward in the 2000s. Most of the animated films released in the early 2000s were not very good with films such as "Home on the Range" and "Chicken Little" being the worst examples of them. Fortunately, though, they did start to recover with the new management changeover and shift towards being a creator-driven animation studio which led way to "Bolt" which I feel was the film where they began to turn around. While the film isn't great and does have problems that hold it back, I still find it pretty good and feel it was a big step in the right direction for the studio.
For a while, a White Shepherd dog named Bolt (John Travolta) has been trying to protect his owner named Penny (Miley Cyrus) from the evil Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell), a crazy scientist with a catlike green eye who had kidnapped Penny's father. Though Bolt isn't a normal dog, he also has superpowers including laser eyes, superspeed, superstrength, and even a super bark. This all seems too good to be true, and in fact, it is. The whole setup is part of a TV show being filmed in Los Angeles where the director (James Lipton), as well as Penny's agent (Greg Germann), keep Bolt in the illusion that the dog has superpowers even though he doesn't. The crew continues to make episode upon episode where the dog saves the girl before executives force them to juice up the show to prevent ratings from dropping. The crew then film a cliffhanger episode where Penny gets captured by Calico and flown away to a secret location, but Bolt, still thinking it's real, escapes the trailer he's kept in and accidentally gets shipped to New York City in a box filled with styrofoam peanuts. Thinking his powers have been weakened by the styrofoam and determined to find Penny, Bolt finds a cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) who believes Bolt is insane and a hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton) who had seen Bolt on TV and finds him a hero and together the trio cross the country hoping to get back to LA to find Penny.
This film actually did start off a lot different than what we got in the end. It was initially called "American Dog" and was to be directed by Chris Sanders who also made the brilliant "Lilo and Stitch". The original story was about a TV dog named Henry who one day becomes stranded in the Nevada desert with a testy, one-eyed cat and an oversized, radioactive rabbit and needs to find their way back home although they all believe they're still on TV. However, Sanders got pulled off the project and subsequently left Disney for DreamWorks to make "How to Train Your Dragon" and the film was given to first-time directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams instead with only eighteen months to make it. While it's unknown whether or not Sanders' vision of the film would've been better, I still thought this film was still pretty good given the time they had to make it and Walt Disney Animation Studios state at the time. The story does have similar themes to it, but it still is heartwarming and pleasant. I think the way I'd describe it as if "The Truman Show" was mixed with "Toy Story". It's not extremely complicated and it does feel somewhat too similar to the other films I mentioned, but I think its pleasant charm is really what holds it through. As far as the animation goes, I still really admire the creative risks they did with the film. Despite the film being made in computer animation, the filmmakers wanted to make the backgrounds to look more like paintings made by Edward Hopper and I think they succeeded. The backgrounds have a certain look to them that makes it more unique than other animated films I've seen and. even seeing the brushstrokes in the backgrounds give the backgrounds more depth and bring it to life. It was a very nice touch. I also really enjoyed the characters as well. I do love the growth Bolt has a character and despite his goofy optimism about being a super dog at first, he does want to be there for his owner Penny and John Travolta's performance sells it. Rhino does get a few chuckles as well for his boisterous personality and crazy moments. Though the character I thought was the best in the film was Mittens. She easily provided the funniest laughs, but also really had a lot more to her than being sarcastic all the time. As the film further progresses, we learn more about her character which gets to a point where she reveals something that rips your heart out and makes her easily identifiable. She was the best part of the entire film and Susie Essman is what makes her fantastic in the end. Her performance showed her range as an actress since it broke away from her vulgar and loudmouthed character on "Curb Your Enthusiasm". It was an excellent performance. I can't say the same for Miley Cyrus as Penny because I thought her performance was pretty bad. Her performance is so bland and unemotional that it just didn't work for me. It felt like Disney executives forced the filmmakers to include her to try to sell the film to the "Hannah Montana" crowd and I think that was a bad decision. Even looking back at the interviews where the filmmakers talk about how she was right for the role, it all just felt incredibly forced. The role was initially fully recorded by Chloë Grace Moretz who still has a brief appearance as the younger Penny at the beginning of the film and I wished the filmmakers went with their gut and kept her throughout the whole film. Casting Miley just felt like giving into studio executives. Also, I found the climax of the film very unoriginal and generic. I think they could've done something more creative than with what they did, but given the time they had to make the film, it might've been the best they could've done.
In the end, I still find "Bolt" an enjoyable enough film. The story is familiar but still sweet, the animation is creative and has a unique element to it, and the characters mostly work. It may not rank as well with Walt Disney Animation Studios' future films like "The Princess and the Frog", "Frozen", or even Howard and Williams' later directorial efforts like "Tangled", "Big Hero 6", "Zootopia", and "Moana" but I still found it enjoyable enough. It was a step in the right direction after years of duds and a step in the right direction was what they needed the most. Little did anyone know after this little film, there would be a lot to come in the future.