- “If you guys can help me find Penny, that girl from the television show, well, I'd love to hear more about this aliens idea, but on the way.”
- ―Bolt to the Pigeons about Penny
Bolt is the titular protagonist of Disney's 2008 animated feature film of the same name. He is a white German shepherd and the star of a live-action superhero series that has conditioned him to believe he is an authentic superpowered canine. When he becomes spirited away from his owner, Penny, Bolt embarks on a journey in the real world to get home.
- “A dog is so pure. A dog is loving, loyal and practically nothing else. So to be able to take a character like that, who is so trusting, and put him into a premise like this really seemed to work. And to give him such an over the top, ridiculous, fictional frame work for his understanding of the world, and have all that go away, and then be left with one idea which he holds on two which is "I love my owner and she loves me" and that is somehow just so *dog*. So we kept referencing back to that idea, that this is a movie about trust. A movie about the risks and rewards that comes with giving your heart to somebody, and it argues that it is worth the risk.”
- ―Byron Howard.
After the release of Meet the Robinsons, Disney animators and filmmakers had an extensive training program to prepare for the work on what would later be called "Bolt". At the time, former director and storyboard artist, Chris Sanders was in lead of the project. The working name for the film was initially American Dog when Sanders helmed the project. He had started working on a character, a dog, whose overall appearance and personality was predominantly different from the "current" Bolt. Sander's character would be named Henry and, indifference to Bolt, he was an actual actor who would one day find himself lost in the Nevada desert. Henry would meet a radioactive hamster and a one-eyed cat, two characters that would help him find a new home. "Henry" from Chris Sanders' American Dog, was also smaller, red, and had a more cartoonish appearance.
When John Lasseter became Chief Creative Officer at Disney in 2008, he demanded to see Chris Sanders project. John Lasseter and his colleagues from Pixar viewed a couple of early cuts of the film, but they were not impressed. They suggested a series of changes improve the character Henry and his story. Chris Sanders refused and was, therefore, replaced by two new directors, Chris Williams and Byron Howard. John Lasseter was quoted saying that "Chris Sanders is extremely talented but couldn't take it to the place it had to be", adding that "the story was too quirky for his own good".
Many changes were made to both the story and the character Henry, who was now renamed "Bolt". Byron Howard and Tony Fucile were put in charge for the animation and design of the dog while Chris Williams worked on the storyline. Under the new direction, a new dog emerged, more similar to the Bolt we know. John Lasseter was spending most of his time shaping up the plot, providing the animators with his vision of who the character was supposed to be, as well as his role in the movie. The directors, Chris Williams and Byron Howard premeditated the character from scratch but relied heavily on the help from the design team led by chief designer Joe Moshier and various filmmakers who worked at the studio, such as Wayne Unten. The new story emphasized Bolt's relationship to his owner, making the entire plot more centered on the typical canine characteristics, which according to the directors, were innocence, loyalty, and trust.
As the development of Bolt's personality and role in the movie continued, it became apparent that Bolt would have a certain "duo-personality", being a contrasting mix between his adventurous action-hero persona, and his more sensitive, loving, and sympathetic side. John Travolta was chosen as they thought he would bring the right blend of toughness, humor, and appeal needed for Bolt's voice.
The actor was actually chosen among several other alternatives, as he is someone who has had a lot of success playing tough characters in his career. In the animators' opinion, one of the reasons he has been so successful is because there is an innate "sweet quality" in him, and therefore, as bad and mesmerizing as a character can be, he is still making them likable. This ability was very desirable amongst the storyboard artists and filmmakers, as they thought it the perfect combination for playing a dog who thinks that he's a very threatening, menacing figure but underneath it, all is really a normal puppy who loves his owner.
John Travolta took a liking to the character Bolt, even before he started recording his voice. Despite being asked several times over the years, the actor had never worked with any animated feature before and was consequently comparably inexperienced in the field of voice casting. Bolt was the first animated character that he agreed on providing the voice for. According to the actor himself, Bolt was the first time that "indicated as the right character".
In many ways, the character Bolt was animated after Travolta's voice, expressions and his personal interpretations of the dialogues. Bolt's mimics in the movie was inspired by Travolta's performance and the animators would, when working with the storyboard, take inspiration from and sketch after John Travolta's facial expression. His facial expressions were therefore taped during the recording sections by a video camera. As such, John Travolta would give the animators different takes of every dialog which at times could mean up to 20-30 different versions of the same sentence for the animators to choose from. A "Chinese menu" as John Travolta called it.
When Bolt had an initially realistic design, the more realistic American Shepherd design didn't fit in the movie's backdrop. The animators were also irritated with Bolt's paws and ears, thinking that his ears looked too long and his paws were too small. Bolt was redesigned to be smaller and sturdy in contrast to the earlier tall and feeble design.
Once the refinement of Bolt's design was finished, it was up to Jim Kim to flesh out the design team's drawing and sketches in animatable poses. Jim Kim worked as a visual development artist and was very important in the project. Thus far, the character Bolt was nothing more than sketches and drawings, so in order to meet the challenge of transforming Bolt into a computer-generated figure, Jim Kim started working with Joe Moshier's different designs, putting them in different orthographic poses, experimenting with the mimics. He worked to give Bolt his communicative facial expressions and expressive body language.
The last stage in Bolt's design development had to do with canine movement and skeleton studies. To make Bolt's movements seem natural and realistic was of utmost importance to the studio and John Lasseter even required the animation team to use visual references during the animation. Therefore, the team watched and analyzed live-clips of dog movement and behavior, and Dr. Staurt Sumida, a professor in biology from California State University in San Bernardino, gave the team circa a dozen lectures on animal mechanics, muscle and bone structure, as well as canine body language and behavior tendencies.
He also returned as much as four times to the studio to review how the animators applied his lessons during the animation of Bolt. Throughout the entire production period, Bolt was animated with naturalistic dog mechanics in mind. When animating Bolt's model during the production, one of their many goals was to successfully marry the realistic, natural body language of real dogs with Bolt's more anthropomorphic facial expressions, to make the character dynamic and expressive. In this project, supervising animator Wayne Unten played an important role, and once again, John Travolta's recorded mimics were used during the animation of Bolt's mimics, while Bolt's overall movements and canine body language reminded natural and realistic. By now, after months of redesigning, the character Bolt looked and behaved like from the movie.
Bolt is a very fervent, lively, and impulsive individual, often seen performing dangerous stunts, even in the real world, like when he jumped from a bridge onto a speeding locomotive. Bolt is headstrong and tends to give the impression of being stubborn as it takes a lot for him to be beaten down, exhibited in the fact that he does not accept that he is an actor with no superpowers. However, it could be argued that Bolt is surprisingly quick to realize his understanding of the world is wrong, given the fact that he spent the majority of his life completely isolated from the real world.
In accordance to his superhero persona, he often gives the impression of being adventurous in the real world. However, it is unknown to which point Bolt enjoyed the fictional adventures he shared with Penny at the TV studio and it is likely that his fear of losing Penny made the entire experience rather stressful for Bolt most of the time, rather than thrilling or stimulating. It is also likely that he saw his superpowers merely as a means of protecting Penny. Bolt is also focused on finding Penny, rarely speaking of his superhero role, which would explain why he is able to accept that he does not have any superpowers after only a few days, despite having spent almost five years in his delusional state.
At first, due to his delusional outlook, Bolt seemed theatrical and eloquent when speaking, often using articulate expressions, hyperbole, and descriptive metaphors, much in contrast to Mittens who speaks with certain street slang. Bolt referred to some of the feline characters as "degenerated creatures of darkness", calling Mittens' arguments about his lack of superpowers "preposterous". He often came with typical, hero-like one-liners, including, but not limited to; "It ends here", "You leave me no choice", and uses terms like "classified" and "target acquired" quite frequently. Obviously not knowing what food is, he referred to whatever could cure the hunger-pains in his belly as "antidote" (much to Mittens' amusement) and blood as "red liquid". After his huge self-realization and accepting who he really was, Bolt speaks less and seems more introverted. Compared to Mittens, Bolt is a few-worded character and the animators relied heavily on body language to make him expressive.
Stuck in the fence in New York, Bolt tried to break free with his perceived strength but to no avail. He showed a stubborn side, at first not listening to the pigeons' advise on how to break free. After calming down, he follows their methods and is freed. The event marks a milestone in his character development, as it is the first time that he has listened and taken help from other characters in the movie. The positive outcome served as a behavior alternating "positive reinforcement" as it is also the first time he solves a problem through the use of intelligent problem solving rather than use superpowers – a practice that Bolt will develop and use throughout the rest of the movie. Bolt's ability to solve problems indicates that he is intelligent or extraordinarily adaptive, despite his delusional view of the world.
Bolt is, as mentioned, a very caring individual who will stay faithful to his closest friends. His canine trust and guileless credulity make him a susceptible target for other characters, such as the fast-talking, cynical Mittens, who, at times, manages to hurt Bolt's feelings and the cat actors, who relish in mocking his delusions. During the first part of the movie, Bolt reacted to Mittens' sarcastic comments with frustration, and later, with a strong measure of disappointment and resignation.
As he began learning to become a normal dog, he came to possess the common dog-like playfulness; enjoying chasing sticks, playing with Rhino's hamster ball, and digging. Sometimes, when the situation allows for it, Bolt likes wrestling and chewing on his favorite squeaky toy, Mr. Carrot. The brief scenes in the movie when Bolt is shown blissfully playing, learning how to be a "normal dog", are also the scenes in which the titular character seems the most joyful and carefree. Bolt also enjoys rainy nights, playing with garden sprinklers, and much like most dogs, he likes to stick his head out of moving vehicles to feel the wind against his face, and, in contrast, he seems to like watching fireworks and is disgusted by the idea of lapping water out of toilets.
Bolt's breed is not defined in the movie but his overall appearance has seemingly more similarities with the Swiss-originated Blanc Suisse than the American White Shepherd. Bolt is a medium sized white-furred dog with a strong neck with thick, seemingly double-coated fur, which is raised when excited and lowered while running. Bolt has a muscular, sturdy body with strong upper arms and thighs. He is, however, slender, with a trim belly, long elegant tail, and flexible, agile body. His eyes are usually brown but tend to seem auburn in bright lighting.
Bolt's appearance is "softer" than a normal German Shepherd with a more curved outline, thick, rounded legs, and domed forehead. The "normal" Shepherd has longer, thinner legs and a more meager appearance.
Bolt's coat is a creamy white and his fur differs in thickness as it is short haired over his stomach, flanks, and back, and a bit thicker over his neck. The animators worked much with Bolt's fur so that it would seem soft and fluffy with every hair moving in a realistic way.
Role in the film
In March 2003, an 8-week-old Bolt is raised at the Silverlake Animal Rescue Center. One day, a girl named Penny enters the locale and spots Bolt almost immediately. Bolt turns to Penny, smiling and wagging happily before being distracted by his own tail and starting chasing it. Penny adopts the puppy, hugs him, and gives him his iconic dog collar.
Five years later, Penny has received a call from her "father" alerting his daughter she is in danger from the evil Dr. Calico. To protect Penny, her father genetically manipulated Bolt to have superpowers, like super-strength, the super-speed, heat vision, and his legendary "superbark". His mission is to protect his owner from Dr. Calico and his minions and save Penny's father who is being held, prisoner. Using these powers, Bolt helps Penny foil Calico's plans, playing the role of a stereotypical, nerveless superhero.
However, it is soon revealed that the entire premise is part of a popular TV show where Bolt plays the lead role. Bolt, however, believes that his adventures are real and that Penny, his actual owner and whom he directs all of his considerable love and devotion to, is in real danger. The directors nurture this illusion through the use of extensive stenography and live-effects, hence tricking the apprehensive canine, year after year, into believing that Penny is in serious danger and in need of constant protection. Everything is done in order to achieve a more realistic, genuine performance from the poor dog whose only real interest is to be with his owner.
Penny, as a child actress who knows the drill, nonetheless returns Bolt's love when she is not being pulled away by other workers or her greedy agent. After each recording session, at the end of each day, Bolt and Penny spend some time alone in a trailer located inside the studio. Aside from the recording, this is seemingly the only time the two get to have together. Penny is forced to leave Bolt every night, alone in the trailer, as the directors are very keen to keep Bolt isolated from reality out of fear it would have on his performance, but she aspires to one day take him home with her and let him enjoy the life as a real dog.
After a recording session, the two have some time on their own, but the dog is too worried and triggered to play or even eat. Instead, he persistently guards the door against the potential evils he is convinced might still be outside. Penny seems worried and tries to connect with Bolt by getting him to play or calm him down but soon must give up when her pink cell phone rings, reminding her that it is time to leave Bolt alone. Bolt, obviously knowing from earlier experience what the ringtone means, looks insistently at Penny and tries to block the door with his body, trying to keep her from leaving. Penny sighs saying, "You know I have to go" and hugs Bolt before leaving, who stands by the door after that she left, whining uneasily.
During the night, two cats who play Calico's cats on the TV show visit Bolt's trailer to mock him and harshly and inconsiderately play on the fact that he thinks it is all real. Bolt does not realize that the cats are making fun of him and gets extremely frustrated when the cats ignore his threats and attempted intimidation. The cats leave him barking crazily.
When the ratings are dropping, the directors decide to make a "cliff-hanger" as a comeback with Bolt not getting to rescue Penny, who knows Bolt's condition will get even worse, at the end of the shooting. Instead, he is restrained and dragged to his trailer where they try to lock him in. Thinking that Penny needs to be rescued, he effortlessly tricks the guard and escapes the trailer. Spotting some props from the TV set outside a window, he throws himself against the hard surface, convinced that he will be able to break through. Instead, he knocks himself unconscious and falls backward into a box stuffed with packing Styrofoam which is then sealed and Bolt is shipped cross-country to New York without anyone knowing where he really is.
Confused in New York
Alone, lost, and worried in the streets of New York, Bolt tries to find Penny while running down the crowded streets, convinced that she is still in danger. He tries to perform several of the stunts he used to do in his TV series. He first tries to knock out a man wearing a suit, thinking he's Dr. Calico, but he fails. He then tries to jump over a road construction ditch but falls down the hole in a most anticlimactic manner. Upon crawling back up, he spots a truck carrying a portable toilet that looks like the container in which Penny was captured. He runs up in front of the truck and readies to smash his head into it, but the driver, fortunately, spots him and stops just before hitting him, saving his life. Bolt doesn't find Penny in the portable toilet but he meets a few dogs down the street, which he refers to as "brothers" suggesting that his career at the TV series has left him with a view of all dogs as allies. However, he quickly becomes frustrated as the dogs seem entirely clueless rather than answering any of his questions, and he runs away when a concerned dog walker tries to put a leash on him.
In the next scene, Bolt accidentally gets his head stuck in a fence. He tries to bend the bars and rock himself free, but to no avail. Whilst stuck, three pigeons arrive and advise him to turn his head in order to break free. Bolt is too frustrated to listen, growling that he needs to find his person. He eventually calms down and listens to the pigeons, and actually manages to break free when following their instructions. Desperate to find Penny, he is led to a sassy alley cat named Mittens who bullies pigeons out of their food.
Believing Mittens to be an agent of Calico, Bolt attempts to interrogate Mittens by holding her off a bridge over heavy traffic to find Penny's whereabouts. Deciding to play along after seeing Bolt's tags, Mittens directs him to Hollywood, but Bolt brings her along against her will.
Along the way, Bolt notices his "powers" aren't working, but he brushes it off as a side-effect of the Styrofoam from the box he was shipped. He thinks that it's his kryptonite (weakness). After jumping from the moving van he was using to get back to Hollywood, he also experiences pain and hunger for the first time. To sate his hunger and lower any more risks from his delusion, Mittens trains him to use "the dog face" to beg for food when they end up at an RV park. While persuading people out of their food, they meet a TV-obsessed hamster named Rhino who is a huge fan of Bolt's show and (like Bolt) believes that it's all real. He convinces Bolt to let him tag along and leads them to a bridge over a railroad after Bolt states they'll "need a fast set of wheels." When Rhino mentions a "magic box", Mittens finally realizes Bolt is a TV star but is unable to explain to him before they end up almost killed on the train. Fearing her life, Mittens climbs a tree to escape him and tries to convince him he's an actor. His repeated attempts to use his superbark draw attention and they're eventually captured by animal control. Bolt breaks free but it turns out Rhino let him out of the truck's cage. The lightning bolt on his fur smudges (having splashed in a puddle during his escape), which finally knocks the truth into Bolt, much to his depression. His spirits are lifted just high enough after a brief pep talk from Rhino (who still has yet to realize the truth himself) to give Bolt the will to save Mittens from the pound. The dog, cat, and hamster escape the shelter in the distraction from an explosion.
Cross-Country Journey and Training
They hitch a ride on a truck to continue, but Bolt is still hopelessly depressed and confused about his existence. She cheers him up at by letting him in on a "little-known cat secret" that cats hate dogs because they want to be dogs and she explains that being a dog is having the "greatest gig in the world". Mittens teach Bolt the meaning of being a real dog and how to act like one; like playing fetch, sticking his head out a car window, etc..
Acquiring a map, the trio resumes their journey across the USA with better accuracy. As the days go by, Bolt is brought into true reality with an entirely new outlook on life, something he never had in the studio. Soon, his superhero persona (and lightning mark) fades as he develops ordinary canine behavior and a friendship with his companions.
Bolt's Broken Heart
Towards the end of the trip, the trio finds themselves in Las Vegas, where they enjoy ample leftovers from buffets and beautiful fireworks. But Mittens refuses to continue on and tries to convince Bolt that Penny is just an actress and only pretends to love him. Bolt refuses to believe this and, in a rant, Mittens reveals that she had owners who abandoned her, declawed when they moved. Bolt tries to convince Mittens that Penny is different but she pushes him away and apologizes for showing pity to him. Bolt says goodbye to Mittens and wishes her the best, and continues on alone.
With the help of pigeons, he's guided back to his old studio. Hearing Penny, Bolt heads towards her to play like regular dogs do with their owners. His joy turns to shock when he sees Penny hugging a replacement of himself and leaves with a broken heart, believing Mittens had been right. But what he didn't know was that that was a scene Penny was acting.
Bolt to the REAL rescue
Outside the studio, he runs into Mittens, having been convinced to follow by Rhino. She explains to him that she was wrong when she observed how heartbroken Penny was and tells Bolt that Penny truly loves him as her own dog and misses him dearly. But this is cut short when Bolt then suddenly hears something and senses something's wrong and realizes that Penny is in actual danger. He, Mittens, and Rhino rush back to the studio, which is on fire due to his lookalike panicking and knocking over some torches. With Rhino's help, Bolt just barely makes it inside. He locates Penny and they share a heartwarming reunion which is cut short because they need to get out as soon as possible. Bolt leads Penny to an air-vent but she begins to succumb to smoke asphyxiation. Penny tells Bolt to save himself but he refuses to leave her side. Bolt realizes the sound echoes out through the vent and (recalling how Rhino did an echo) releases a loud bark through to alert the firefighters of their location before passing out. They're rescued just in time and sent to the hospital. When their agent believes they can exploit the incident for publicity, Penny's disgusted mother informs him that she, Penny and Bolt quit after angrily kicking him out of the ambulance.
A New Life
Three days later, Bolt's show jumps the shark with an alien abduction plotline with his lookalike, and a new Penny starring in the show (the show explaining the new Penny's different appearance as a result of facial-reconstruction surgery) while the recovered Bolt and Penny have moved to a rural home, possibly Kansas, and neighborhood with Mittens and Rhino, who Penny has adopted. With this new lifestyle, the four and Penny's mother have a happier life.
- According to dates seen on posters and in magazines that appear in the movie, Bolt was born in March 2003 and was 8 weeks old when adopted by Penny.
- By size and behavior, he is probably or most likely 31 years old.
- The number on Bolt's dog tag is the address of Disney's feature animation building.
- Bolt was adopted from the Silverlake Animal Rescue center. There is a real animal rescue organization named Silver Lake Animal Rescue League, located in Michigan.
- Bolt seems to have a habit of talking to himself. He is seen talking to himself in one of the early scenes, trying to calm down. He also called himself "Bolty," a name that Penny also uses on him.
- Bolt's name was changed to "Volt" in Russia, since the word "bolt" can be used as a vulgar word, meaning a male organ in Russian.
- When Bolt escapes from the studio, he has his dog collar and iconic lightning bolt tattoo, with the collar representing his loyalty to Penny and the lightning bolt representing his delusional view of the world and perceived superpowers. When Bolt returns to Penny after his great adventure, he is still wearing his collar, while his lightning bolt has been smudged off his fur, symbolizing how he has left his superhero role behind while still believing in his relation toward Penny.
- It is not explained whether the scene in which Bolt is adopted takes place in real life or in the series, maybe that scene takes place in real life and the studios paid Penny's familly for using Bolt in the series in some moment before the scene when Penny receives a call from her "father".