An “Incredible Journey” or “Homeward Bound” updated for the superhero era, “Bolt” is an OK Disney animated entry enhanced by nifty 3-D projection. The first inhouse feature from Disney Animation since Pixar guru John Lasseter took over the studio’s creative reins, this tale of a canine forced to overcome his superdog complex and learn to become a regular pooch bears some telltale signs of Pixar’s trademark smarts, but still looks like a mutt compared to the younger company’s customary purebreds. While punchy enough to keep parents amused, pic will probably play best to small fry and, especially with Disney star Miley Cyrus onboard, will have no trouble chasing down hefty biz through the holidays.
Although it seems like a workable notion on paper, onscreen the fundamental premise feels a bit shaky. From puppyhood, Bolt (voiced by John Travolta), a white hound with a black lightning bolt emblazoned on his side, has starred as a sort of Rin Tin Tin on steroids in a popular TV show alongside his owner, Penny (Cyrus). An action-packed New York chase sequence shows off Bolt’s skills, as he takes down an army of marauding trucks, helicopters and innumerable ant-like soldiers while sprinting faster than Roadrunner, soaring to enormous heights, stopping vehicles in their tracks and suspending a bad guy in his jaws from a bridge.
All his powers are enhanced for the tube, of course, but Bolt doesn’t know this; he’s kept on the set or locations at all times to guarantee he believes everything he’s doing — that Penny is actually in danger from the villains and that he can always save the day. So when Penny returns to Hollywood and Bolt inadvertently ends up on the streets of Manhattan alone, he doesn’t understand why his customary abilities fail him.
You need to take this canine mental lapse in good faith, which little kids will likely do more readily than their more jaded chaperones. All the same, it takes the entire movie for Bolt to locate his inner real dog, with most of his education coming from wise-girl tutoring supplied by black-and-white street cat Mittens (Susie Essman), an abandoned house pet now reduced to skin and bones.
This being a movie in which animals can speak with one another but not with humans, Mittens spars with Bolt from the outset like a spunky, seen-it-all heroine from a 1930s Warner Bros. programmer, but without that quality of banter.
Film feels particularly flat during the stretch that sees the pair stowing away on a westbound U-Haul truck to search for Penny; their repartee is off-puttingly argumentative, and Bolt’s overplayed phobia about Styrofoam proves entirely unfunny. However, things pick up at an Ohio rest stop, where they are joined by Rhino (Mark Walton, providing the pic’s best voicing), a roly-poly hamster quite adept at maneuvering the clear plastic ball in which he spends most of his time. Rhino’s antics provide welcome comic relief as well as a buffer for the cat-and-dog exchanges.
With Mittens having to explain to her delusional pal that, “Nothing you think is real is real,” she proceeds to instruct Bolt in the simple pleasures of being a dog, such as sticking your head into the wind from a vehicle, romping through a sprinkler or cavorting with other dogs. A particularly felicitous passage sees the animals occupying a prefab house being transported by truck, which permits Mittens to instruct Bolt on the niceties of home life while ruing her own lost domesticity.
After a spell in Las Vegas, the journey winds up at a Hollywood studio for an unsurprising action climax that once again mixes fantasy and reality.
One decidedly Pixar-like touch is the deliberate fudging of time period. While the high-tech superhero aspects of the TV show and the Vegas on view clearly define the setting as the present day, the backdrops hark nostalgically back to the late-’50s/early-’60s ambiance of “The Incredibles” and “Cars.” Only older buildings are seen in the film’s conspicuously underpopulated Manhattan; the Middle America passed through possesses an appealingly idyllic, timeless quality; and even the New Yawk accents of Mittens and a trio of brilliantly animated “Italian” pigeons seem a couple of generations old.
“Wall-E” is also brought to mind, due to the fact that a very large number of the film’s incidental human characters, not to mention Rhino, are extremely fat.
Voicings, from Travolta and Cyrus on down, are pro but unexceptional. First-time directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard have both worked at Disney for 14 years in various capacities, and pic’s visuals are similarly proficient without inspiration. John Powell’s vigorous score adds propulsion and excitement, and the soundtrack includes two new songs, with a Cyrus-Travolta duet, “I Thought I Lost You,” featured over the end credits.
Film will be released in flat and 3-D versions, and the latter looked great at the screening caught.