How “Bolt” Revitalized the Disney Formula

bolt

It’s no secret that I love a good Disney discussion, and the Internet offers no shortage of opportunities. Yet despite the multiple debates about the studio’s animated adventures, some films are unfairly downplayed or even ignored. When discussing the new wave of great Disney Animation films, for instance, fans are quick to champion the virtues of subversive princess stories like Tangled and Frozen, or other genre-bending adventures like Wreck-It Ralph and Zootopia. All fine films, to be sure, and all deserving of their accolades. But few seem to mention the film which arguably kicked off the current “Disney Revival.”

Bolt, admittedly, is not quite as revolutionary as some of those aforementioned films. But it represented a key turning point for the Disney studio, a moment which allowed them to change direction after nearly a decade of bumpy and uneven animated films. The title may have referred to a dog, but it might as well have been analogical to the creative lightning which struck the studio upon its release.

It’s easier to forget now, with Disney scooping up accolades and Oscar wins left and right, but it was not long ago that the world’s premier animation studio had found itself in a rut, consistently lapped by its younger and fresher competitors. Following the famed Renaissance of the 1990s (during which films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King consistently scored with both critics and audiences), the studio began to lose track of its spiritual roots, focusing on more esoteric flicks that often played like Disney Lite. Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Brother Bear emphasized bold designs over compelling characters – a problem not helped when the studio switched to CG animation with the frenetic Chicken Little. Occasional bright spots like Lilo & Stitch now seemed the exception, as studios like Pixar (emphasizing heart) and DreamWorks (emphasizing hipness) pulled ahead of their progenitor in popularity.

But Bolt, released in 2008, began to change all that. It received strong reviews and multiple award nominations (including a Best Animated Film nom at the Oscars – Disney’s first since 2003). And although debuting the same weekend as Twilight hurt its box-office chances, the film still performed well, teeing the studio up for even greater hits to come.

What, precisely, separated Bolt from the films that came before it? I can slim it down to three factors:

1. It’s a Classic Story in a Modern Format

Part of the problem with the early-2000s Disney films is that they can’t decide whether they want to adhere to the studio’s time-honored formula or update it for the new millennium. Is Atlantis an early 20st-century mystical adventure, or an early 21st-century shoot-em-up action flick? Is Treasure Planet a celebration of a classic novel or a sci-fi future? Is Chicken Little a straightforward fable or a parody of one? And so on.

Bolt, finally, strikes a happy medium. Its setting is unabashedly modern – a good chunk of the story takes place on a Hollywood lot, complete with editing rooms and 18-to-35 demographics – but it tilts toward the clear-cut, character-centric structure that defined the best of the Renaissance films. The film may feature 2008 renditions of New York and Los Angeles (complete with cleverly-designed, head-jerking pigeons to match), but these backdrops are merely window dressing for the film, which yearns to capture the deft balance of warmth and humor that put the studio on top to begin with.

So what begins as The Truman Show by way of Air Bud soon morphs into a buddy-comedy rendition of Homeward Bound. Stories about non-anthropomorphized animals are often associated with the classic “Disney feel,” and Bolt, in its many on-the-road scenes, is able to capture that feel, even as its funny dialogue has been updated for a new generation. The film’s overarching draw – a dog gets lost and must reunite himself with his owner – is timeless, allowing for the writers to play around with a multitude of details.

2. It Features Three Great Leads with Three Great Dynamics

It’s not easy to balance a film with three strong lead characters, at least not without one of them feeling undernourished. Yet Bolt pulls it off admirably. How?

The deceptively simple answer lies in how well the lines between the three leads are drawn and triangulated – each one has a distinct and wholly different perception of the world than the other two. Bolt himself (voiced by John Travolta) believes the world to be an extension of his eponymous TV series, and his distorted, egotistical view is compounded by the inherently doggish loyalty he has to his owner (Miley Cyrus). Contrasting his shortsighted yet cavalier outlook is Mittens (Susie Essman), a sardonic and pragmatic feline who sees the world from a much more grounded perspective. The film wisely avoids animation’s typical cat-and-dog antics with these two, opting instead for something more complex – Bolt’s love of his Human is perfectly compounded by Mittens’ distrust of people at large.

And tossed right between them is the little plastic bubble of joy named Rhino. In the hierarchy of Disney sidekicks, this energetic hamster (voiced by storyboard artist Mark Walton) sits near the top. A die-hard fan of the canine star, Rhino eagerly tags along to play his own heroic part. It’s never quite clear how fully Rhino believes in the world of sky-beams and supervillains – he’s neither as onboard as Bolt, nor as off-road as Mittens – but he bounces perfectly off both his compatriots, lending a much-welcomed third perspective to the showbiz shenanigans.

Each of the three critters gets the chance to pair off with one of the other two, and their well-developed dynamics crackle with onscreen energy. As with Disney’s most memorable films, Bolt emphasizes the interplay of its characters, energizing the cross-country tale all through the journey.

3. It Has Full Command of Its Tone

During the Renaissance era, Disney garnered acclaim for the weightiness of their animated dramas – some would argue that Lion King and Hunchback of Notre Dame aren’t really “kid films” at all. At the same time, their use of comedy was also lauded, with films like Aladdin and Hercules putting a delightfully cartoonish spin on tales of yore.

But as the 20th century gave way to the 21st, the studio’s output grew more scattershot in its tonal ambitions. Wanting to broaden the appeal of their films (particularly in an era when 2-D animation was growing passé), the studio began to downplay the character drama in favor of larger scale and spectacle. This resulted in films that looked good, blending hand-drawn designs with CG-enhanced movements and backdrops, but it left the films feeling shallow and uninspired.

The opening minutes of Bolt, though, seem like a repudiation of the studio’s earlier 2000s work. What begins as a tense, action-packed string of chases and explosions (The Fast and the Furriest, if you will) is quickly revealed to be a fake-out, a scripted storyline with no connection to reality. Bolt is not an action movie, and for the rest of its run, it never pretends otherwise – it puts the focus squarely on Bolt the character, rather than Bolt the superdog. The film’s tense opening scene is merely a punchline, and once the joke is over, the film takes itself more seriously, more successfully.

That’s the tack Disney has taken in the decade since Bolt’s release – putting characters and story over perceptively cool environments. A good structure and compelling lead can allow the film to branch in multiple directions, both comedic and dramatic, and provide a satisfying experience for viewers young and old.

Some of Disney’s more recent output may have proven this point more potently and effectively, but the studio and its audience owe a lot to Bolt.

Bolt is available on DVD and streaming on Netflix.

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