For every Lilo & Stitch, there is a Treasure Planet. For every Monster's Inc, there is an Atlantis the Lost Empire. Movies that were overlooked and forgotten unnoticed all their worth, not because they were bad or uninspired, but simply because they had the bad luck of being released at the wrong time or in the wrong way.
Bolt, the 2008 animated feature, had both of those problems. Largely overshadowed by the dynamic duo of Kung Fu Panda and Wall-E and utterly unheeded by a remarkably poor and misguided marketing campaign, Bolt went unnoticed by most moviegoers but is still, to this day, very much treasured among hard-core Disney fans (myself included). It's one of those rare movies with stellar critical reception but awful box office results, cute, touching, funny but ultimately forgotten. The very start of a new Disney renaissance in animation and at the same time, a failure. Bolt was all of those things and quite a bit more. Moreover, Bolt himself - the pristine white animated dog, not the movie - went on to make a considerable impact right here on deviantArt as many of you know. The fact which got so precious little buzz what generate so much fandom on the quirky corners of the interwebz would undoubtedly have surprised it's creators.
Yet, as for as the outside world is concerned, Bolt came and went. Even on the 2009 academy awards, where Bolt was nominated for no less than two Oscars, focus on the film seemed conspicuously absent. Before the award for best animated feature was given, a brief video was shown with clips from the years various animated features. Despite being one of the three only animated movies nominated that year, almost no clips from the movie Bolt was displayed. Madagascar, a movie that was not even nominated, got more screen-time. For all intents and purposes, Bolt was radioactive. Everyone seemed to want to steer clear, avoiding him like that awkward kid in school. Yet, everyone agreed that Bolt was a stellar movie. The critical reception was the best any animated movie had received in more than a decade!
Either way, let's go back to the marketing and talk for a second about how terrible it was. The early trailers for the movie made it seem like Bolt was another one of those loud, action-filled slapstick comedy-animations packed with pop culture references. As written by movie-critic Steve Biodrowski from Cinefanstastique:
"Trailers suggested that most of the film would consist of sight gags in which Bolt injured himself while trying to recreate his TV stunts in real life. Animal lovers can be notoriously sensitive to images of animal abuse, even fictional ones; perhaps this turned away customers who might otherwise have flocked to the movie on opening weekend."
Those who has seen Bolt knows the movie actually has a very genuine, unassuming charm to it. It's a cute, darling film that doesn't try to be anything it isn't, and the few who actually saw Bolt on it's opening weekend must have noticed this and spread the word, because the movie actually generated more box office the second weekend! This is a very unusual phenomena in the world of cinema, and it speaks volumes about the quality of the film. Oh, did I mention that Disney thought it was a good idea to release Bolt the same weekend as the box office bomb Twilight and the latest Bond movie? Well, they totally did. So not only was Bolt released the worst possible year for any animated feature to be noticed, it opened on the worst possible weekend.
It's always sad to see a great movie being overlooked, but my main reason for upsetting about this movie's failure to some point has to do with the adorable titular character by the same name as said film. I freaking loved Bolt when I saw the film. In fact, he is what got me interested in the film to begin with. It might seem strange to have such an affection to what is essentially just a set of pixels (albeit a very cute set of pictures) but I've always loved dogs (the animated, talking kind has always been a tad more interesting to me than what would be considered normal for a male teenager), and I have a tendency to view characters as real personalities, as if they actually had rights and could be affected by what happens in reality. (No, I'm not schizophrenic, I think everyone does that to some extend).
And perhaps that's why I can't help feeling that Bolt himself as been a tad "mistreated". See, it's not only that his film was poorly received, Bolt never quite got the attention he deserved *in* the film. Despite being the, in my opinion, most lovable and interesting character in the movie, I kept feeling that his character development never quite got enough attention in the film. Instead, it feels like shallow comic relief characters such as Rhino and the pigeons were allowed to take over, and Bolt was subsequently pushed to the background. Think about it, the scene where Bolt realized he didn't have any of his superpowers was supposed to be the emotional climax of his entire adventure, yet the entirety of that scene consisted of Rhino giving his silly pep-talk. Bolt got like two lines during that entire scene. Make no mistake, Bolt is still my favorite character, and in my opinion, the scenes in which he is allowed to shine with all his doggy expressiveness, such as the puppy scene and the scene where he rescues Penny in the ending, are the most touching and memorable. I just feel that some potential was lost when it comes to the portrayal of his character development, something I think could have made the film even more emotional and memorable.
Ironically, Rhino, a shallow comic relief character who screams out all his dialogs in an attempt to amp up his comedic assets, was praised by many critics. Bolt, in comparison, was a more thoughtful and few-worded character, with a young and earnest voice provided by Travolta. So why didn't he, or Mittens for that matter who was also very appealing, receive the same praise from critics as this annoying hamster?
Well, for one thing, critics are stupid. But I can't blame them for being distracted by Rhino's razzle-dazzle. As mentioned above, the movie sorta slips back on jokes and comic relief characters, and Bolt's story felt a tad underdeveloped. This could very well be due to the movie's very troublesome production history.
The character that is Bolt went through some hardship before his very "birth" and if the original director for American Dog had had his way, he would have never even existed! At first, Chris Sanders wanted to turn the character into an eccentric, drunken actor-dog who looked like an ugly, red badger more than anything else. When John Lasseter and his pals from Pixar took a look at Sanders' project, they weren't impressed. They suggested a series of improvements, but Sanders flat-out refused. Lasseter was forced to have Sanders replaced by two new rookie directors, Chris Williams and Byron Howard, who was tasked with the challenge of absolutely remaking Sanders entire project, and finishing the film in only 18 months rather than the usual 4 years which most animated features require. The end result, however, was unique, smart and charming movie which was met well by critics (Bolt has c:a 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes!).
Then how sad isn't it that this movie was seen by almost nobody in American during it's opening weekend. The people at WDAS were quite literally shocked when Bolt missed its box office target while Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda flourished in ticket sales. John Lasseter, the owner of both Disney and Pixar and producer of Bolt, was said to be outraged, as it doesn't make sense to him that such a well-reviewed Disney film would fail to find a fairly sizable audience, demanding to review the way marketing is handled.
Bolt marked an internal success for Disney, and the start of a new era of high quality, well-received Disney features comparable to that of Disney, but it also marks a horrible example in how poor circumstances can utterly doom on otherwise great film, and it's safe to say that Disney will be more careful in the future when it comes to the marketing of their future animated features. And so they should, but the damage for this particular dog, who never really got to have his day, has already been done.
EDIT: I'm writing this four years after the movie's American release.
So what's next for Bolt, an underrated character from an underrated movie? Well, it's true that for the average American household at least, Bolt went under most people's radars. But he is anything but forgotten. There are smaller communities where Bolt has almost reached cult movie status, and both bluray sales and indeed plush sales have been surprisingly high. (Just recently, I saw a Bolt plushy on Ebay being sold for more than 450 dollars!).
The truth of the matter is that Bolt has managed to generate a pretty lively fanbase. Here on DeviantArt, I've seen an incredible amount of artwork dedicated to him, and the fact that people are still drawing him four years after the movie's release speaks volumes about the characters' and the movies' cultural impact. So in that sense, Bolt is not an unsuccessful character, quite the opposite, he is very successful indeed.