John Travolta lends his voice to the animated family film Bolt as the namesake star, a dog who goes on a wild cross-country journey to reunite with his young owner. Sharply drawn supporting characters, a solid narrative hook and slickly constructed action-adventure sequences help make for a vibrant, engaging, feel-good treat that will connect strongly with especially younger viewers.
For super-dog Bolt, every day is filled with adventure, danger and intrigue. The canine best friend of young Penny (voiced by Miley Cyrus), Bolt is the unwitting star of a hit TV show built around a variety of Hollywood-created powers, like heat vision, improbably long leaps and a “super bark” that can overturn cars. When he’s accidentally shipped from his soundstage home all the way to New York, Bolt sets off on a cross-country journey back to Penny.
At first convinced that all his amazing abilities have just been weakened by styrofoam packing peanuts, Bolt eventually learns the truth about the phony, Truman Show-like construction of his sheltered world. Still, Bolt pines for the only person he’s felt loved by and really known his entire life, so with the help of two unlikely traveling companions — a jaded, abandoned housecat named Mittens (voiced by Susie Essman) and a TV-obsessed hamster named Rhino (voiced by Mark Walton) — he heads west, finally discovering he doesn’t need superpowers to be a hero.
Owing to its show-within-a-show conceit, Bolt has ample opportunity for amped-up action, and co-directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard stage some madly kinetic scenes, including a wild, brawny opening sequence that pays homage to a few bits from The Matrix series. The core of the movie, however, lies in the bewildered interactions of its contrasting personalities, and Mittens, Rhino and several different groups of pigeons they encounter along the way all serve as amusing foils for Bolt.
The film looks quite appealing. In design, there’s a soft, painterly style to many of the film’s backgrounds, more than a bit evocative of hand-drawn animation of years gone by. The interplay between characters, shadow and foregrounded objects is uniformly fantastic, and subtly different lighting schemes are evidenced in various parts of the country during Bolt’s travels, including Ohio, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
It’s a sign of the overall, deftly sketched success of Bolt’s action sequences and big emotional moments that one is free to nitpick about a few inconsistent character bits, as when Mittens teaches Bolt the joys of simple “dog stuff,” like sticking his head out of a moving car window, or playing fetch. These are all things that Bolt would still be familiar with; they seem only designed to pad out a montage. It’s also somewhat curious just how little substantive emotional investment there is in Bolt’s eventual recognition of his lack of powers. It’s about an inch thick, as if Bolt‘s makers didn’t think the film could handle the momentary drag. None of this will matter much to younger audiences, though.
Travolta’s vocal performance dutifully hits the emotional beats required in each scene, but — whether because of some of the aforementioned incongruities or just wandering focus — seems to lack a strong, codifying personality apart from Bolt’s quest. It’s a case of movie star casting slightly overshadowing animated character. There’s no such qualm with Disney star Cyrus. She delivers a tremendously sympathetic turn as Penny, and the heartfelt yearning in her voice immediately summons a strong audience connection to their own childhood pets. It’s in-house story artist and part-time voice actor Walton who really steals the show, though. Embodying the notion that everyone is the star of their own narrative, he puts a funny spin on the energetic, blinkered Rhino. For the full original review, from Screen International, click here. (Disney, PG, 96 minutes)