Paws to Reflect: Bolt?s message extends beyond its trailer.
Paws to Reflect: Bolt?s message extends beyond its trailer.

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When an action star has to whip out the old don’t-you-know-who-I-am? while dealing with a clueless public, it can be humbling—particularly when the public doesn’t care about your status as much as sniffing your butt. That’s not even the greatest humiliation suffered by the title dog of Bolt, Disney’s latest animated comedy, on the day he’s thrust into the everyday world. Bolt, an adorable white German Shepherd, is the superpower-fueled star of a television series whose producers take great trouble to get the most honest performance out of their moneymaking pooch. That means never letting Bolt know that he’s merely an actor and not, say, Underdog. Something as innocuous as a boom mic could spell disaster, easily scrubbed off a shot but potentially shattering the show’s Method madness.

Even when Bolt’s co-star and “person,” Penny (Miley Cyrus), wants to take the dog she adopted as a puppy home for the weekend, she gets a sugarcoated but firm “no” from her obsessive agent (Greg Germann). Penny leaves anyway, and Bolt (John Travolta) is convinced she’s been kidnapped, a la their drama’s clichéd damsel-in-distress rescue plots. And so the loyal dog escapes his Hollywood trailer to find her, accidentally ending up in a crate headed to New York. No problem, he thinks. He’ll just keep busting doors, bending steel, and using his “superbark” to obliterate whatever gets in his way. But then he falls. And gets stuck. And some wisecracking pigeons laugh at him, never quite remembering why Bolt looks familiar but playing along with his illusion, sending him off to meet a bossy alley cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) when Bolt speaks of an evil kitty.

Directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams make their debut here, with Williams also receiving his first full screenplay credit for co-writing the script with Cars writer Dan Fogelman. Considering all these freshmen contributions, Disney’s holiday tentpole is nonetheless an engaging, solid effort. (It’s also the first time the studio has shot a film in 3-D instead of adding post-production effects; this review is of the 2-D version.)

The animation—certainly the backgrounds, if not the characters themselves—is often photorealistic, particularly a jaw-dropping scan of the Las Vegas strip. Though there’s a lot of inside-Hollywood humor (the East Side pigeons say things like “re-donk-ulous,” while their California counterparts talk scripts and personal assistants), most of the dialogue is funny without assaulting parents with pop-culture references or resorting to cheap laughs for the kiddies. Even the movie’s potential uh-oh character, a ball-enclosed, TV-obsessed hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton), isn’t as broad or obnoxious as you’d expect. Rhino, who joins Bolt and Mittens as they head West to find Penny, may be a little overcaffeinated, but his perpetual spouting of action-movie lingo and casual threats (when Bolt warns of a guard at an animal shelter, Rhino says, “I’ll snap his neck”) earns some of the movie’s biggest laughs.

Bolt’s primary fault? That it’s being released the same year as WALL•E. Regardless of a high passing grade, it would have taken the kind of superheroics that Bolt eventually realizes he isn’t capable of to match the mastery of this summer’s Pixar film. Comparisons will be inevitable—and not in Disney’s favor. Bolt does share one of WALL•E’s best qualities, however: a warmth that’s genuine instead of cheeseball, something not easily found at the multiplex regardless of genre. In addition to the lead doggie’s all-around cuddliness—try to stifle an “awww” when he scratches his neck after flipping a semi—the story emphasizes not only the bond between people and pets but sends a pro-adoption (and anti-abandonment) message so strong you expect Sarah McLachlan to make a cameo. Humanizing a machine is an impressive achievement, but moving viewers to well up over their furry friends is a good one, too.