Jeff Birou returns to kick off part 2 of the underrated Disney film series with a movie I always enjoy watching (and not because I’m a huge Miley Cyrus fan)…
Okay, let’s just get this out of the way: objectively speaking, Bolt should not be a part of the “EndEARing & Underrated” series. It made twice its budget—over $300 million—at the box office back in 2008. It has a pretty solid score on Rotten Tomatoes (88%), was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar (understandably losing to WALL-E), and sold yet another $81 million worth of DVDs and Blu-rays the year after it was released. Even when factoring in the theatres’ cut and marketing costs, Bolt still seems like, if not a blockbuster, than at least a financial success for Walt Disney Animation.
So, what sort of evidence could possibly be brought forward to support my claim that Bolt is underrated?
Well, first, there’re more stats: Even though it made $309 million, Bolt was never #1 at the box office, and was only the 17th-highest grossing film in 2008, behind WALL-E (#9), as well as Kung Fu Panda (#3) and even Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (remember, it’s “2”, not “to”, and was #6). When compared to these other films aimed at the same audience, Bolt didn’t fare nearly as well.
Then there’s the anecdotal: when’s the last time you saw Bolt merchandise besides the DVD or Blu-ray? Or a Bolt meet-and-greet character at the parks? Yep, that’s right: rarely. In fact, the Disney Store online only carries one Bolt plush, which also happened to be the only Bolt representation could find at my recent visit to Walt Disney World. If popularity of a Disney movie can be measured, it’s with how much it shows up in merchandise.
So, sure, Bolt may have done well at the box office, but it was quickly overlooked as a worthwhile entry in the Disney animated classics canon, and that’s just a shame.
Bolt had the pedigree (see what I did there?) for success: it’s a buddy comedy, road trip, and character study all in one, with Pixar and Disney Animated Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter serving as the executive producer. It has some great character designs, particularly in the trio of Bolt, Mittens, and Rhino. The animation, while not terribly unique, was a huge improvement for Disney after Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons.
While the voicework provided by John Travolta is a little flat, it more often than not suits the serious nature of the title character. Rhino, voiced by Mark Walton, has the bulk of the film’s one-liners (and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the inspiration for Disney’s live-action G-Force, for what it’s worth) The real stand-out, though, is the Susie Essman, who gives Mittens the cat such an evocative and distinct voice. Mittens, more than Bolt, even, is the heart-and-soul of this movie, her sarcastic, biting humor just a façade hiding a lot of heartache over being abandoned by her previous owners. Mittens’ arc is immensely fulfilling and the most fully realized in the film—she’s one of the true standout, though under-appreciated, characters of the last decade of Disney films.
Original director Chris Sanders, whose previous work Lilo & Stitch has proved a boon artistically and monetarily for Disney, left his fingerprints all over the film prior to being replaced during development: Stitch and Bolt (and Bolt’s involuntary companion, Mittens) are all strays at some point in their story, and all show up in shelters. Rescuing and nurturing animals is a common thread through all of Sanders’ work (see also: How to Train Your Dragon). If you’ve ever rescued a pet, you know the emotional harpstrings getting plucked as you see these characters react to being in a shelter.
Bolt, like Stitch, has also lived an entire life dictated by what others have required and expected of him—he has never had the opportunity to exist outside of these constraints. Much of the film deals with Bolt’s struggle in coming to terms with his make-believe past and the freedom he has in determining what kind of dog he really wants to be, on his own terms.
Family is also a major theme in both films. Stitch’s comment, “This is my family. I found it, all on my own. It’s little, and broken, but still good. Yeah, still good,” is echoed in the slow-to-develop friendship between Bolt and Mittens. Though they started the film butting heads (with Bolt programmed to distrust all cats), the two eventually come together, finding common ground and become dependent upon one another as they reconsider what it means to be a part of a family: heck, maybe cats and dogs can get along after all. All of this is underscored with a song as the film closes out: “There’s no home like the one you’ve got/’Cause that home belongs to you.”
Bolt is a truly enjoyable, funny, and sincere film about identity, loyalty, and family—bedrock themes of so many Disney classics. While Bolt was overshadowed by more successful films when it was released, it deserves reconsideration.
Or at least, turn it on and see how your dog sits transfixed by the film (this also works with One Hundred and One Dalmatians.)