Leave it to Pixar to inject some much-needed imagination into the recent animated efforts of Walt Disney Studios. As the first animated feature entirely under the watchful eye of John Lasseter (chief creative officer of both studios and director of Toy Story and A Bug’s Life), Bolt may not win best-in-show this year, but he’s definitely a charmer.
In an opening scene shot like a canine version of The Incredible Hulk or Spider-Man, we meet the titular American White Shepherd, who is the superhero star of his own TV show. Not only can Bolt (Travolta) run at lightning speed when he hears the command “zoom zoom,” he can also shoot laser beams from his eyes, lift cars between his teeth, and flatten anything in his path with a startling super-bark. Eat your heart out, Underdog!
Bolt honestly believes it is his mission to protect his owner, Penny (Cyrus), from the sinister Dr. Calico (McDowell) and his band of futuristic foot soldiers, and the TV show’s director (Inside the Actors Studio interviewer James Lipton) insists the show’s actors and production crew continue to lead Bolt to think he really is a superdog. Somewhat like The Truman Show, everyone’s in on the intricate scheme and is able to shoot each episode without Bolt’s knowledge by using guerilla-style camerawork and special effects. The initial premise might seem outlandish (especially the dog who always stays on script), but let’s just say it works, for argument’s sake.
Problems arise, however, when ratings drop and the director decides to change the show’s format to make each episode end with a cliffhanger. Bolt doesn’t understand what’s happening when shooting wraps one day without his usual victory over his nemesis. Still believing Penny is in trouble, Bolt escapes his trailer on the studio lot and ventures off to save his “person.” But as Buzz Lightyear discovers in Toy Story, basing one’s identity on overhyped superpowers makes for a huge blow to the psyche when they turn out less impressive than advertised.
After he realizes he might not be a gene-spliced wonder pup after all, Bolt meets Mittens (Essman of Curb Your Enthusiasm), a stray cat with abandonment issues who helps Bolt learn the ways of a normal dog — fetching, digging, and sticking his head out the car window — and Rhino (Walton), a hyperactive hamster fanboy who religiously watches Bolt’s show on the “magic box” and secretly wishes to become his action sidekick.
In addition to this scene-stealing furry rodent, who rolls around in a plastic ball making ludicrous but entirely sincere declarations such as “I’ll snap his neck” or “I’ll get the ladder,” there are enough laughs and soft-hearted moments to make Bolt one of the more memorable family-friendly movies of the year. Sure, WALL•E will probably scavenge most of this year’s animation awards, but there’s no shame in a silver medal. Even second place at the Westminster is worthy of a good tail-wagging. •