Brave, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Bolt is the canine equivalent of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) of “The Truman Show” fame — he lives his whole life in a TV show but doesn’t know it. And because he’s a dog, the Kafka-esque/metaphysical angst that assailed Truman (once he discovered that his life is all about fabricated fragments of a ratings-grabbing action series) touch Bolt’s heart only briefly. He has other things to worry about, like why his superpowers (turning freeways into concrete rubble at a single bark) can’t work outside the studio, and whether Penny (his human costar on the show) really loved him or her sweet winsomeness was just acting.
Directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams, “Bolt” is the thinking kids-and-parents’ Disney animation, one that actually invites semideep discussions concerning reality and identity and job commitment, over postmovie burgers.
Having said so however, it’s still heavily customized entertainment, rigged to manipulate the senses (the much-advertised 3-D effect is top-notch, if a little wearing), open tear ducts and extract giggles with Hollywood commercialism vengeance.
“Bolt” heralds a new era in Disney films: It’s the first production supervised by Pixar’s guru director John Lasseter, and his handiwork shows in the intricate quality of the visuals, combined with a sincerity in the overall tone that speak of a genuine, unslick smartness (read: more action, more meaty dialogue, less wisecracks).
And much to the director duo’s credit, Bolt (voiceover by John Travolta) never exchanges his dog identity for a human personality: His logic and behavior patterns remain strictly canine from start to finish.
Bolt’s stand-out trait is loyalty, and having been trained from birth to protect Penny (Miley Cyrus) from the clutches of cat-loving evildoer Dr. Calico (Malcolm MacDowell), he can’t stop doing that just because the show’s come to an end. On the set or out on the nitty gritty streets of Manhattan, where Bolt is mistakenly shipped to after a series of accidents.
Bolt’s priorities remain the same: First, find Penny and make sure she’s OK. Second, save the world. What a guy!
It’s no wonder Penny — teenager that she is — has no interest in human males her own age and is suspicious of the director (James Lipton), whom she suspects is exploiting Bolt’s nice-guy qualities in order to increase ratings (duh!).
In New York, Bolt meets the cynical, urbane cat Mittens (Susie Essman) and is taught the ropes of street survival, though he had long considered felines to be “degenerate creatures of darkness,” and an overweight TV-obsessed hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton), who turns out to worship both Bolt and his show, decides to tag along. Rhino (who himself is a little vague between what’s happening in the real world and the stuff he sees on TV) understands that Bolt needs to return to Penny minus the use of the superpowers he had once wielded so easily. Mittens, on the other hand, tells him to wake up and smell the unpalatable truth: “People can’t be depended on. Penny was only pretending to love you, it was her job!”
True to its Pixar influences, “Bolt” draws a lot from “Toy Story,” which also featured a pivotal relationship between a human boy and his favorite toys. Only one of them understood he was a mere ah, plaything. The other couldn’t understand why, once taken out of his box and deposited in the boy’s room with all the other toys, his almighty invincible powers disappeared.
Bolt has a similar dilemma, but it doesn’t take long before his concerns for Penny override his concerns for strutting his stuff and having the title role.
In some possibly “dark and degenerate” way, there’s a theme in this film about stars and ratings and megalomania. Or maybe it’s a more straightforward message about dogs being better actors. Bolt certainly has some moments of method acting that would floor Dustin Hoffman.