Walt Disney Animation at its most inoffensive, Bolt features a talented team behind the camera, including future Big Hero 6 director Chris Williams, the Tangled creative team of Byron Howard and Nathan Greno, and a script co-written by This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, but lacks anything remotely interesting, either technically or storytelling-wise. The fact that it is coherent at all is something of a miracle, given that its production aligned closely with the contentious “Save Disney” campaign that would end with Michael Eisner being ousted and Bob Iger paying a hefty sum for Pixar and its creative principles to run all of Disney’s animated output.
Originally the film was called American Dog and was being written and directed by Chris Sanders, the prickly genius behind Lilo & Stitch and a longtime Disney story artist (his storyboards for The Lion King will make your jaw drop – and those were only storyboards). That film, had it seen the light of day, would have been heralded as an offbeat masterpiece, mark my words. But new boss John Lasseter, now finding himself in charge of Disney animation as well as Pixar, disliked Lilo & Stitch and thought American Dog’s story was too problematic
(he couldn’t get over the idea that humans could understand animals when they were talking to them). Sanders was relieved, the new (extremely talented) team was installed and the narrative became much simpler and less fussy. Bolt is workmanlike, for sure, and it’s probably a good thing, for the overall health of the studio, that it went a more conventional route. But American Dog (along with a few others) remain a damnably tangible what-if that makes Bolt look like less of a film than it already is, for better or worse.