Disney animation takes a tentative step out of Pixar's shadows with Bolt, a winning 3-D-animated action-comedy that marries the best Disney traditions with Pixar polish. This road comedy of a lost TV star dog doesn't rival the classics from Disney's computer-animation pioneer partners, but it's the first in-house Disney animation — after the middling Chicken Little, The Wild and Meet the Robinsons — to bear comparison to the Pixar gold standard.
In a dazzling 10-minute opening, we're treated to a sort of Bolt Supremacy, the fictional adventures of a teenage girl and her “genetically altered” super dog, a canine capable of leaping over black helicopters in a single bound, blowing up objects with his glower and flattening armies with his “super bark.”
Whenever Penny (voiced by Miley Cyrus) is in danger, Bolt is there to save her.
But Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) isn't in on the gag. The TV show's special effects go off around him, and he thinks he did it. The bars on a prison cell bend because they're rubber, and he doesn't know. It's all to preserve Bolt's delusional sense of urgency, the show's director (James Lipton of Inside the Actor's Studio) insists.
So Bolt is particularly ill-suited to be on his own. When he's accidentally shipped to New York, he has to make his way back to Hollywood and Penny using not his vaunted superpowers but his wit as he slowly realizes that he's not the dog he always thought he was.
“Normally, I'm a tad more indestructible,” he complains to the cat he kidnaps because he thinks cats are part of the vast feline conspiracy of “the green-eyed man,” the TV' show's villain. Mittens (Susie Essman) has the thankless job of bringing the super dog back to Earth, of explaining to him the ways of the world, of convincing him that no, Styrofoam packing peanuts aren't what robbed him of his powers.
She has to because the other sidekick they pick up along the way is a fat, furry fanboy in hamster form — Rhino. He travels in a hamster ball and just loves Bolt on the “magic box” (TV), and he's just as delusional about their “mission” as the dog.
The 3-D animation here is less gimmicky than is usual for movies that you have to watch through the funny glasses. It just makes the images sharper.
Bolt might be more verbal than your typical Disney 'toon, but it's a comedy with the patience to let a slow-burn gag pay off. A bit involving a flock of pigeons with Jersey accents, pigeons who can't quite place the TV star, plays out in pigeon-time.
“Yo, take it easy.”
“I will not take it easy, pheasant!”
But it's not just about the laughs. It's a cartoon that goes to great pains to mimic and mock real dog behavior, much of which Mittens has to teach Bolt, who's never had to beg with those puppy dog eyes. It's about a girl who loves her dog and the dog who loves her back. And that heart makes Bolt the best Disney cartoon to not have the Pixar name on it since Lilo & Stitch.