The latest in an extended run of films about blurred reality and fiction (see Galaxy Quest and Tropic Thunder), Disney's Bolt is a significant improvement for the Mouse House's CGI animation department, no doubt thanks to the arrival of Pixar's John Lassetter. Bolt concerns the eponymous dog (John Travolta), unknowing star of a successful TV show that casts him as a super-canine guardian for plucky tween crime-fighter Penny (Miley Cyrus), in episodic adventures to thwart emerald-eyed nemesis Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell)...
Things are complicated when Bolt's accidentally transported from his Hollywood trailer to New York City, shortly after a cliffhanger finale imperils Penny. Unpacked and forced to cope in the real world without his powers (a weakness he blames on the Kryptonite-like power of Styrofoam.) Bolt's quickly pushed in the direction of "evil" alley cat Mittens (Susie Essman) by pigeons manipulating his self-delusion for their own benefit, before cat and dog join forces on a cross-country road trip to find Bolt's "person", picking up TV-addicted hamster Rhino (Mark Walton) from a trailer park along the way.
What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in execution. Bolt isn't the funniest, emotionally-satisfying, or interesting animation this year, but it's cheerfully entertaining and there are regular creative spikes. An Incredibles-style opening with Penny and Bolt defeating dozens of bad-guys is imaginative and exciting, the conceit behind the entire movie is handled well (despite being totally implausible), and it even manages to elicit some heartfelt response during a climactic rescue. The characters are quite rounded and well-voiced, avoiding the trap of including too many recognizable celebs, while drawing out Travolta's best performance for years. Cyrus is also unexpectedly touching and sweet as Penny, while Walton and Essman offer great support as Bolt's friends; the latter's role as a chubby hamster stuck in a plastic exercise ball a notable highlight.
It's not going to suddenly put Disney animation on equal footing with Pixar (whose films are far deeper and better-crafted) but it's commendably inoffensive and rather enjoyable, even when it wanders into such blunt clichés like a mass escape from an animal rescue shelter. I'd rather have watched a feature-length version of the Bolt TV show in some ways, but this offers a palatable mix of amusing characters, a story that holds your attention, a few exciting sequences, and morals for the kids to soak up while being entertained.
directed by: Chris Williams & Byron Howard written by: Chris Williams & Dan Fogelman (based on an idea by Chris Sanders) voices: John Travolta (Bolt), Miley Cyrus (Penny), Susie Essman (Mittens), Mark Walton (Rhino), Malcolm McDowell (Dr. Calico), Nick Swardson (Blake), Diedrich Bader (Veteran Cat), Chloë Moretz (Young Penny), Greg Germann (The Agent), James Lipton (The Director), Randy Savage (Thug), Kari Wahlgren (Mindy) & Grey Delisle (Penny's Mom) / Walt Disney Animation Studios / 96 mins. / $150 million (budget) / www.disney.go.com/disneypictures/bolt