Plucky doggy Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) and his adoring owner Penny (Miley Cyrus) are the stars of a hit television show. Having lived his whole life on a soundstage, Bolt genuinely thinks he has amazing superpowers and that every week he helps Penny foil cat-loving, evil genius Professor Calico (Malcolm McDowell). One day, mistakenly believing Penny is being kidnapped, Bolt tries to save her and is knocked into a box and shipped from Hollywood to New York City. Stranded in a strange city, Bolt enlists the help of a cynical cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) and Rhino (Mark Walton), a hyperactive hamster who claims to be his number one fan, as they journey across the country in search of Penny. But Bolt has a lot to learn about the real world.
Disney’s latest CG cartoon started life as American Dog, a project written and directed by Chris Sanders, of Lilo & Stitch (2002) fame. While still centred around a deluded dog TV star, the plot saw him stranded in the Nevada desert with a one-eyed cat and an oversized, radioactive rabbit for company. Dissatisfied with the direction the story was heading, Pixar boss-turned-head of Disney animation John Lasseter handed the project to writer-directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams. Lasseter’s influence is apparent in the emphasis on emotional impact and heart-warming relationships, apparent right from the lyrical first encounter between young Penny and the puppy Bolt, although the gags aren’t quite as punchy as those in Pixar fare.
The movie teases with its dazzling sci-fi thriller opening. Alongside Penny on her jet-powered scooter, Bolt outraces heat-seeking missiles, leaps over a helicopter in slow-motion and zaps bad guys with his heat vision and super-sonic bark. Exciting stuff and, like Bolt, you can’t help feeling a teensy bit disappointed none of it is real. Essentially, this spins the same premise as the Buzz Lightyear subplot in Toy Story (1995), albeit with a great deal of heart as Bolt races to save the girl he loves, while Penny struggles to stay true to her dog in the face of heartless Hollywood.
For a Disney movie this is remarkably cynical about showbiz. A manipulative director (voiced by James Lipton, host of Inside the Actor’s Studio) is dead set on keeping Bolt living his Truman Show existence (“If the dog believes it, the audience believes it”), a venal agent tries to fool Penny with a fake Bolt and turn an on-set accident to front page news, and a heartless TV exec reroutes the happy-go-lucky show because “18-35 year olds hate happy endings and want a dose of reality.” Cat-lovers will enjoy the neat joke in how every feline on the show knows it’s fake and teases Bolt mercilessly.
The bulk of Bolt is a mismatched buddy road movie, wherein streetwise Mittens, herself carrying emotional scars, teaches the clueless canine how to beg for food, play with other dogs and savour the delights of hanging your heat out of a moving car. Great vocal performances from John Travolta, Susie Essman and Hannah Montana starlet Miley Cyrus bring warmth and lovability to the oddball characters, although obsessive fan boy hamster Rhino (“My ancestry isn’t all hamster, there’s some wolf in there somewhere”) is a trifle irritating. Still, he does deliver a message that even silly fantasy TV shows can inspire people and impart certain worthwhile values. Predictably - spoiler warning - the characters trade showbiz for reality, which slightly undercuts the argument for the validity of their show, plus you wish someone had put that cynical network executive in her place.
Still, there are some very witty touches - including the screenwriting pigeons who pitch Bolt their ideas for his show (“And we have a great pop song for the end credits!”) - and the climax delivers excitement, drama and warmth. Its beautifully animated, with a visual style allegedly inspired by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and has a likeable country & western flavoured soundtrack, including a song sung by Travolta and Cyrus. Keep watching for the charming 2-D animated end credits.