Film Review: Bolt

Funny and engaging 3D adventures of a canine TV star lost in the real world. Disney marketing might ensures a major holiday family hit.

Can the new Walt Disney Animation Studios compete with its golden hit-machine sibling, the Disney-owned CGI pioneer Pixar? Well, if you’re looking for a masterwork like this summer’s visionary and haunting Wall-E, the verdict is no. But if you’ll settle for an unpretentious, consistently entertaining romp like Bolt, the answer is a gratifying yes.

The story behind the scenes is at least as intriguing as the antics that unfold onscreen. Pixar co-founder and Toy Story director John Lasseter took the reins as chief creative officer of both animation units in April 2006, and soon found himself butting heads with Chris Sanders, the director of what was then known as American Dog. Sanders delivered a hit for Disney in 2002 called Lilo & Stitch, but he and Lasseter ultimately parted over the usual “creative differences.” Thus Bolt, with a new take on the characters and two new directors, was born.

Whatever ideas Lasseter brought to the project, it succeeds as a lively, amusing adventure with plenty of heart—and a road-movie element that surely appealed to the creator of Cars. John Travolta voices the title canine, a huge television star who is fooled into believing he shares the same powers as the fantasy superhero he plays. When his co-star and owner Penny (voiced by Disney girl-of-the-moment Miley Cyrus) appears to be in real jeopardy, Bolt escapes his cage and accidentally winds up in a crate being transported from Hollywood to New York City.

Alone in Manhattan, Bolt targets an abandoned housecat named Mittens (the usually profane Susie Essman of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” here rendered family-friendly), who the dog believes is the key to finding the show’s archenemy, the Green-Eyed Man. Bolt proceeds to embarrass himself demonstrating nonexistent powers like his “super-bark,” and gradually comes to the awful realization that he’s helpless outside his studio environment. But the TV star has a devoted champion in Rhino, a TV-addicted hamster in a plastic ball who is thrilled by the idea of joining one of Bolt’s missions. With the help of a “Waffle World” placemat map of America, the dog, his tied-up hostage cat and the hamster set out on a cross-country journey to Hollywood.

Among the highlights is a sequence in an animal shelter where Mittens is being held after being separated from her companions. With comic timing worthy of a Pixar film, Bolt and Rhino prove they may not have superpowers, but enough luck and wit to rescue their frightened friend (and create a little collateral damage). The trio ultimately find their way to Hollywood, where the producers of the “Bolt” TV show have replaced their star with a lookalike—as Bolt faces the possibility that his beloved Penny has moved on.

Screening in select theatres in Disney Digital 3D (highly recommended), Bolt takes particular advantage of the stereoscopic format in its fantastical opening TV action sequence (complete with 007-like chases and explosions) and a suspenseful climactic rescue. More subtle 3D pleasures can be found in the movie’s artful replication of bustling Manhattan and roadside Middle America.

Travolta and Cyrus offer winning vocal performances, but the movie is stolen by the sidekicks. Essman brings surprising vulnerability to her watchful and astringent feline, and Disney Animation artist Mark Walton is a delight as the effervescently gung-ho rodent Rhino. The movie also gets laughs from a trio of photorealistic pigeons who advise Bolt in the early New York scenes.

Guiding directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard, Disney honcho Lasseter delivers on the promise of a Disney animation brand that extends beyond Pixar pixels.