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Like a Bolt out of the blue…


Walt Disney Pictures recently released the first official promotional image for its upcoming CG-animated film Bolt. The film, set to be released on November 26th, 2008, emerges from a troubled development process and it appears that new director Chris Williams and team have completely reworked the design of the film since the departure of former director Chris Sanders. This shift has caused something of a ruckus in the animation community, with some Sanders fans incensed at the alteration of his very personal project and others insisting that fans keep the faith with John Lasseter and the Disney “Story Trust”.

I have mixed feelings on the issue, many of which are caused by a general lack of knowledge as to what happened to cause Sanders’ departure. Lasseter has intimated in interviews that Sanders was either unable or unwilling to work within the framework of the Story Trust to resolve story problems with the film. Without knowing specifics of these problems, it’s hard to tell how severe they were or how much stemmed from disagreements in tone. Rumors trickle out that it was thought that the film was “too quirky for its own good” and that Lasseter was not a fan of Sanders’ trademark wackiness.

Bolt in car

While I certainly have faith in Lasseter’s story sensibilities, and the notoriously individualistic Brad Bird has shown that it’s possible for vocal directors to work within Pixar’s collaborative style, I am a fan of Sanders’ quirkiness and find his voice and style to be both interesting and valuable. Lilo and Stich was a breath of fresh air for animation fans, and a rare bright spot in a very dark time for Disney watchers. Bolt, formerly titled American Dog, was Sanders’ pet project and brainchild, and it’s upsetting to see a project taken from its creator given Pixar’s aspirations to a “director-driven” system.

For me, the question is not whether the film will be good or not – I too have faith in the new Story Trust and am sure this will be no Chicken Little – or whether Sanders’ departure dooms the film. After all, Lasseter took Jan Pinkava off of Ratatouille and that became a masterpiece; directors were also pulled off of Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Kingdom of the Sun (which became the highly enjoyable though lightweight The Emperor’s New Groove). My question, as I look at the very homogenized design in the publicity still, is whether there’s room for distinctive or unique artistic visions in the framework of Disney Feature Animation.

Bolt and hamster

I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of the character design as shown, although admittedly a posed publicity still isn’t the best indication of how things will play on the movie screen. I remember nearly choking at the first images I saw from The Incredibles, and that not only wound up a brilliant film but flowed beautifully on screen. Still, the new design for the title character seems straight out of a marketing department focus group and lacks the uniqueness of Sanders’ original concepts. The cat fares better, with an almost Miyazaki quality, while insane hamsters in plastic balls are always money.

Bolt as spy

While the bland dog design might eventually look fine in motion, the sly character of the original illustrations has been lost and that’s a shame. I’ll forever mourn the loss of the giant eyepatched mutant cat – what are the odds that he’ll ever show up in another project? I’ll admit that I had previously harbored concerns that Sanders’ designs might not transfer effectively to actual animation, but there’s no denying that they have personality.

Pixar’s story cred is without question, but it remains to be seen how their distinct visual style will carry over into Disney Feature Animation. While Bolt will probably wind up as a historical curiosity if the rumors of WDFA’s exclusively traditional animation future are true, it’s clear that Bolt‘s designs don’t break any ground and remain firmly in the traditional Pixar mold. While there’s nothing really wrong with that, it raises my previous question of how much room remains for visual experimentation or singular artistic styles in Disney animation.

The Three Caballeros

Disney’s animation tradition is rooted in a surprisingly experimental past, despite the fact that those early features and shorts stay pretty much within traditional narrative conventions. While Disney didn’t exactly delve into hardcore Dadaism, they definitely experimented with Surrealism. Disney’s relationship with Dali is well known, although their collaboration Destino was not completed until 2003. And while Jack Hannah wasn’t exactly Hans Richter (joke excerpted from my “Animation Nerd” comedy set at the ToonTown Ha-Ha Club), there was some crazy stuff in those films. Parts of Bambi are surprisingly expressionist, and Dumbo has its amazingly surreal “Pink Elephants” sequence. The cream of the Disney experimental crop, though, is contained in the postwar package features. Released from the constraints of conventional narrative, animators were freed to experiment with style and technique and the results are sometimes surprising for those unfamiliar with the period.

Blame it on the Samba

Much better known are the postwar films, which have a far more conventional and fixed style. I would suspect that this is because many artists such as Mary Blair, John Hench and Claude Coates were pulled by Walt to work on his theme park projects around this time and the animation department was handed over to the Thomas/Johnston school of character animation. From Cinderella in 1950 until the modern day, Disney animation focused on the perfection of character animation in a narrative setting instead of experimenting with style. The focus was on acting instead of look, and the result was a masterful if static visual tradition. Glen Keane, the ‘star’ animator of Disney’s modern age, and his contemporaries were apprenticed in this tradition and this resulted in a nearly seamless visual transition between the two eras.

Sleeping Beauty

Within this period, there were few attempts at distinctive visual styles in Disney features. In the classic era, experimentation was limited almost exclusively to Eyvind Earle’s angular backgrounds in Sleeping Beauty. In the modern era, 1997’s Hercules featured character designs based on the caricatures of artist Al Hirschfeld and 2001’s Atlantis was in part designed by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. Then there was Lilo and Stitch, which mixed traditional Disney design with Chris Sanders’ unique style – his trademark female designs are nearly as distinctive as Freddy Moore’s.

Bolt Cat

So what’s the point of this trip down memory lane? Just that I hope that there’s room in the Disney canon for experimentation. While I would never want them to give up on their traditional style any more than I would want them to abandon their trademark musicals, I’d love to see something as crazy as Blame It On the Samba, The Three Caballeros or Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom emerge from Disney animation. Despite any problems he may have had working within the system, I worry that that will be much harder without people like Chris Sanders to push the boundaries.

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3 comments to Like a Bolt out of the blue…

  • I’ve been very deep into the package films right now and I was similarly disgusted with the sanitized “Bolt”. Lilo & Stitch has a total third act meltdown so it’s not like I’m claiming Sanders is a master of story, but I trust him to do something interesting much more than I trust Lasseter. I simply don’t like Lasseter’s films much, and find his ideas about story structure to be bland. That Brad Bird is doing what he’s doing right now is still, for the moment, the exception to the rule.

    Call me a pessimist, but I totally jumped bandwagon on American Dog / Bolt once Sanders did, since he was the only reason I was interested to begin with. That Lasseter has come in and played down the aspects of AD which would’ve made it pretty bizzare and played up the aspects which make it more like Toy Story is depressingly typical. If Bolt turns out to be good, then all the better, but I know I won’t see it. I don’t watch new films much anyway and in all cases Sanders moves my money, not Walt Disney Pictures Presenting Stuff. The quality of the film regardless still can’t totally obliterate my disgust left over from seeing Bolt(tm) Merchandise Mover JPG for the first time, which I showed to my boyfriend with the lead in “ready for the most soulless thing ever?”

    No, Pixar-Disney Megaplex will never do something as artistic and wonderful as Three Caballeros. There aren’t enough iconoclasts left in the room.

  • I’ve actually been meaning to link to your package film articles because, completely coincidentally, I’ve been on a package films and abstract shorts binge since Christmas. I’ve enjoyed your articles.

    As for “Bolt”, I’m obviously of two minds. I of course want to give Chris Williams a shot because none of this is really his fault and he might have something interesting to say. At the same time, I *know* Sanders had something interesting to say and I really wanted to see it. I just wish a solution could have been worked out to keep Sanders on the film but also appease the story trust.

    The design is very blah and obviously plush-merchandise inspired. As far as I know, the dog in the film is supposed to be a Hollywood action star and this design doesn’t really say that to me. I also am totally not down with his Lightening McQueen tattoo. Why not put it in a place where dogs usually have markings, like his chest or forehead, or even his back? I can’t believe they’d go with such an obvious analogue, especially considering the story *already* sounded derivative of Cars – in fact, a mishmash of Cars and Toy Story. I’m really not ready for another ‘delusional celebrity gets stranded in the Heartland and learns a valuable lesson about friendship’, so I hope they have something up their sleeve.

    While I do enjoy Lasseter’s films a lot, I rank them fairly low in the Pixar canon. They have a certain bounce to them that I really enjoy, and they’re always entertaining and funny. They just never really surprise me. They don’t have those moments that really grab you, and they certainly don’t knock me on the floor and jump on me like Ratatouille did. I guess this is what I was trying to get at in the article – the difference between fun and *interesting*. I want to have my old fashioned Disney comfort food, but I also want them to go totally nuts every now and then. I’m just afraid that instinct to go wild has been completely tamed in favor of maximum accessibility on *every* project.

    I’m sure you’re right about Caballeros, at least on a feature scale. One can only hope that someone plugs enough for another Fantasia, which will at least give the artists some leeway. The shorts program is another promising area – lots of Mary Blair fans there it looks like. We’ll see…

    Thanks for dropping by…

  • I should add that if anyone reading has any insight or informed commentary on the development of the film, drop me a line. Most rumors hold that everyone is generally pleased with the progress being made on the film and I’d be interested to hear more from the ‘inside’.

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