No classic but not a dog in spite of being about one, this Pixar Lite computer-animated Disney flick will keep tykes amused while being tolerated by grown-ups, especially puppy-lovers. And it’s sure to launch a popular line of plush toys to boot.
A sort of combination of “The Incredibles” and “The Incredible Journey,” the movie rests on a premise that even children might find a trifle shaky. The title pooch, voiced by John Travolta, is a shelter pup who’s adopted and becomes the star of a TV series named after him. In it, he’s been endowed with super powers by the scientist father of his “person” Penny (Miley Cyrus), whom he regularly saves from villains led by the evil Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell).
But—and here’s the goofy part—the fact that he doesn’t actually possess those powers is kept secret from him so as not to undermine the authenticity of his performance! (The notion that a movie could be shot in such a fashion is no more plausible here than it was in “Tropic Thunder,” though at least in this case the talking animals already demand a considerable suspension of disbelief.)
Of course, an accident involving a delivery service takes Bolt out of his normal Hollywood bubble—to the streets of New York, in fact, where he’s puzzled by the loss of his abilities until he ascribes it to contact with styrofoam, which he takes to be his equivalent of kryptonite. Forcing an alley cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) to become his helper and later taking on another partner in fast-talking hamster Rhino (Mark Walton), a big fan of his TV persona, Bolt starts a cross-country trip to get back to Penny. There are plenty of adventures along the way, and a big finale in which Bolt proves that one doesn’t need special powers to be a real hero—a message that young viewers can apparently take to heart, along with Bolt himself.
This is all pretty harmless stuff, and the animation, while hardly of “Ratatouille” or “Wall-E” quality—the gold standard—is decent enough in terms of the character visuals, though the backgrounds are pretty anemic. (The impact of John Lasseter as executive producer may be felt here.)
Of the “stars,” Bolt himself is pretty bland, and Travolta doesn’t give him much oomph, and Cyrus is totally anonymous as Penny—a completely uninteresting character anyway (all the humans are pallid, though Greg Germann has a few acerbically good lines as Penny’s snarky agent). Essman brings some nice sassiness to Mittens, easily the most agreeable major figure in the lineup; in fact, felines have a good day here, since a couple of others—assistants to the nasty Dr. Calico who torment Bolt after shooting has stopped—are amusingly catty, too. Walton will be a big crowd-pleaser as the manic Rhino, though it doesn’t take long for the character to become exhausting. Some New York pigeons steal a few scenes in the early going.
“Bolt” won’t make you want to bolt from the theatre, but it won’t make you want to stay around for a second viewing, either. Younger kids, though, will probably feel differently.