The Incredibles is a great film. It pokes fun at superhero films while managing to be a really good superhero film itself. Toy Story is a great film. It’s about someone who thinks he is more special than he actually is and has to come to the realisation that he is far more normal than being a super spaceman. Bolt is not a great film. It pokes fun at superhero films but isn’t really one itself, preferring instead to have a road trip where the main character discovers himself. It’s about someone who thinks he is more special than he actually is and has to come to the realisation that he is far more normal than being a super dog, although at the end he might as well have superpowers so it is all undermined anyway. Mostly it isn’t great because it’s trying too hard to be The Incredibles and Toy Story.
Still trying to work out what Disney should look like in the 21st Century, the battle between old and new continued with Bolt, which veered firmly the way of Pixar in an anti-Disney move, but ended up being nothing like a Disney film and only a pale reflection of the studio it was trying to emulate. In playground terms, it’s the malcoordinated nerd who can speak elvish trying to play American football in order to fit in with the jocks, but although he has the right kit he can’t find a position to play in on the team. In a desperate attempt to be cool, he just shows up everything he is not.
For starts, Bolt is based on a really contrived concept, about a dog who plays a superhero in a TV show that is specifically orchestrated so that he remains convinced that everything that happens is real. Even an audience with the most willing suspension of disbelief (and I count myself in that happily oblivious group) could find holes to poke in this premise, like who on earth would fund a show so ridiculously expensive (ok, kids probably don’t care about TV funding)? Or why does it only matter that the dog goes method, and not any of the human cast? Perhaps such Truman Show shenanigans would be too cruel if done to people in a kid’s film. Either way, it’s a very roundabout way of setting up the plot, which involves the dog travelling across the States to try and find his owner again, all while going on a journey of self discovery. By the time the plot begins, the audience is bored.
Then there is the tonal awkwardness of the film, as it opens with a cutesy dog home scene before an intentionally over-the-top action sequence as the central premise is introduced. There are explosions, super speed, laser eyes – things that are never explained in their ‘real world’ context – as Bolt fights baddies to rescue his owner. It goes on for aaaages, an interminable cacophony of bright, glossy animation and loud noises. Ultimately, it’s pointless, as the rug is pulled and the fabrication of the whole sequence is revealed; a nifty trick if the first sequence hadn’t been so long and convoluted. As it is, you are just left wondering what it was all for (the answer: nothing). Then it becomes a genial, villain-free, fish out of water road movie as Bolt accompanies as sassy New York cat and a naive hamster across the states. This section tries to establish a theme of abandonment issues – negated because we know that Bolt’s owner is desperate to get him back – and some awkward buddy comedy as the mismatched travelling companions roam the country. The hyperbolic opening is forgotten in favour of something much gentler but irredeemably bland.
This is no Chicken Little (to me a byword for substandard ’00s Disney), and contains a couple of exciting-ish set pieces and some nice jokes. The latter is provided mostly by Rhino, a hamster who believes everything he sees on TV. His moment of glory when they get back to the TV set is a genuinely funny moment in a film painfully lacking in laughs. The animation is also a few steps forward from Robinsons and Little, but it’s still uncannily cold. Children will probably be amused by this film, with its accessible themes and big action scenes, but adults may struggle to be as entertained.
The ultimate issue is that Disney just don’t tell stories like this. Wreck-It Ralph, although considerably more successful, suffered the similar problem of a studio trying to be who they were not. What that film got right was that it kept in a tangible emotional core, which this loses in favour of spectacle. Interestingly, the message of Bolt could be translated as, ‘don’t try to be something you are not,’ a message which Disney would do well to pay heed to.