Consider Bolt's dilemma. He's a white German Shepherd endowed with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal dogs. He's faster than a speeding car. More powerful than a rocket. Able to wipe out an entire battalion with a single bark. Together with his 12-year-old human companion, Penny, he fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and a loving pat on the head.
There's only one problem: It's just a TV show. Bolt and Penny are actors. His powers are fake. And our canine hero doesn't know it.
By accident, Bolt is shipped to New York, far away from his Hollywood studio. Bursting free from confinement, he treks back to the West Coast to find Penny and, in his mind, save her from the Green-Eyed Man. Along the way, he teams up with an abandoned cat named Mittens and his number-one fan, a hamster named Rhino. How can Bolt cope in the real world? Can he reunite with Penny without the benefit of superpowers? Does he even need superpowers to be a hero?
Luckily for Bolt, his biggest obstacle has been removed: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which was to have been released November 21, has been rescheduled to July 17, 2009. So our hero's sponsor, the Walt Disney Company, has scooted Bolt up two weeks to that November slot.
To meet that release date on a truncated two-year schedule, Disney's CG artists have been working many overtime hours. "People have really knocked themselves out," director Byron Howard observes, "to make the film as good as they can."
Co-director Chris Williams adds, "Everyone knows this is John Lasseter's first Disney movie, where it has been done entirely under his leadership. And John is very good at opening up creative channels, so that people's energy can get on the screen. That's why everyone has been jumping onto that opportunity and giving it everything they have."
The film's origins predate Lasseter's management of Disney Feature Animation. Four years ago, in January 2004, the project began as American Dog. Its writer and director was Chris (Lilo & Stitch) Sanders (STARLOG #301). And Bolt was a brown hound dog named Henry. The premise was roughly the same, that of a Hollywood canine star who's abandoned, but in this version, it was in his trailer in the Nevada desert, and his sidekicks were a one-eyed cat and a radioactive rabbit.
Then, discontented with its animated feature lineup, Disney management acquired Pixar Animation Studios for $7.4 billion in early 2006. Lasseter became chief creative officer of the feature animation division, while Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar and Apple Computer, joined Disney's board of directors. The new leaders took stock of the ailing unit, ordered revisions of the works-in-progress and shuttered the Circle 7 unit that had been working on Toy Story 3. Some of Sanders' crew moved on to assist Steve Anderson's Meet the Robinsons, while Sanders reworked American Dog. Meanwhile, Lasseter initiated a new shorts program for Disney to nurture new talent and ideas for the studio, as was (and is) the case with Pixar's films.
"John is a big short film fan," says Williams, who had been a key story artist on Mulan and The Emperor's New Groove. "Early on, I pitched a movie idea to John. He didn't greenlight that, but I guess he saw enough in that film that he asked me to pitch some short film ideas. I ended up pitching five shorts to him. The one that he really took to was 'Glago's Guest.' " And so Lasseter commissioned the short about a Russian soldier at a Siberian outpost, and what occurs when he's visited by an extraterrestrial.
As usually happens during a company merger or acquisition, downsizing occurs and employees are dismissed. In December 2006, Disney Feature Animation laid off some 160 of its crew. Among the casualties: Sanders, who was reportedly let go by Lasseter over American Dog's creative direction. Sanders moved to DreamWorks, where he's currently directing How to Train Your Dragon, reteaming with writer Dean DeBlois. As for his replacement, Lasseter turned to Williams.