Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is quite a dog. He runs at incredible speeds, can melt padlocks with his heat vision, and has a handy super bark, all of which he uses to save his young owner Penny (Miley Cyrus) from the clutches of the evil Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell) time and time again. Unfortunately, Bolt doesn't realize that all of this is fake.
He's the star of a popular TV show, and to ensure that his performance is the most believable thing on television, the director (James Lipton) keeps Bolt cooped up in his trailer all day long. When he's let out, the cast and crew run through dangerous adventure scenes as if it's all really happening, taking care to make sure that Bolt doesn't see the men behind the curtain. It's so Method that even Sean Penn might be impressed.
One thing is real, though: Penny is Bolt's actual owner, and is depressed that he's living a lie and that she can never take him home with her. One day, after the show's producer complains of the series' predictability, filming ends on a cliffhanger, with Penny kidnapped by Dr. Calico until next week's adventures. Shut up in his trailer, Bolt is dismayed, and manages to escape, setting off on a cross-country journey to find the not-really-missing Penny, along the way meeting the streetwise cat Mittens (Susie Essman) and the TV-loving hamster Rhino (Mark Walton).
Over the next 96 minutes, Bolt learns the truth of his situation and rediscovers his purpose; over the same 96 minutes, Disney's in-house animation studio regains its footing. After years of bad ideas and half-hearted films, Disney has made its best animated feature since 2002's charming Lilo & Stitch. Bolt is a genuinely fun movie that actually stands a chance of entertaining both the tots and the grown-ups, something that couldn't be said for Brother Bear or Chicken Little.
Key to its appeal is that it manages to be a winning adventure flick as well as a successful Hollywood satire, both on a family-friendly level, of course. After a sweet opening scene in which puppy Bolt plays with a squeaky carrot toy before being singled out by Penny as her "good boy," the movie abruptly switches tone, with booming drums and tightening strings over the soundtrack as he and Penny are on the run from the forces of evil. Both of these sequences are rendered in loving detail by Disney's extraordinarily talented animators; I never imagined watching a cartoon dog play by himself could be as utterly enjoyable as it is here (and they ain't slouches when it comes to the dazzling chase scene either).
When Bolt goes missing, production on the TV show halts as well, and Penny's agent (Greg Germann) is just as snaky and weaselly as we've come to expect onscreen agents to be, but it's an amusing novelty to see it in an animated movie. The movie's overall ridiculing of the industry, from Bolt's containment to the Hollywood marketing machine, and even a pair of birds who try to pitch their ideas to Bolt, is a good joke, but what's even better is the heartwarming bond between Bolt and Penny.
Any dog owner — or a dog owner by proxy such as myself, considering my uncle's dog Jack as my own — can tell you about the special relationship they have with their pet. I don't get to see Jack too often, but when I do, he rarely leaves my side, and when ordered by his "real" owner to leave the room or go lay down, he sticks by my side, nuzzling his head in my lap. I've also learned from experience that if someone were to try to harm me, or if he would even perceive that some harm could come my way, as Bolt perceives that Penny is being kept by the fictional Dr. Calico, he wouldn't back away until the threat was gone. We protect each other. It's that same dynamic that the clever script by Dan Fogelman and Chris Williams (the latter being the film's co-director with Byron Howard) captures so wonderfully. Travolta's Bolt deeply loves Penny, but his manufactured reality prevents him from being anything more than an overprotective guardian. The cute puppy from the beginning has been ruined by Hollywood. When the two are inevitably reunited, full of love and gratitude, it brings a smile to your face.
I'll admit that I'm no fan of Miley Cyrus, yet another bland pop phenom the tweenies go crazy for. The fact that her music carries a somewhat moralistic message, instead of hyping randy sex like numerous pop tarts in recent years, doesn't score her any points with me. You could get a cavity from listening to "I Thought I Lost You," her end-credits duet with John Travolta, so sickeningly sweet is it. But her voice work here as Penny is surprisingly good; it's really good, actually. As far as personality goes, she can't top Essman's sassy Mittens or Walton's lovably manic Rhino, but she makes Penny into a real, honest-to-goodness girl who loves her dog. She's grounded and down-to-earth, which is a big step up from the forced punchlines of Hannah Montana. We can only hope she finds live-action roles as fitting as this.
Bolt is a crowd-pleaser, and while it can't touch the Disney-affiliated Pixar's stunning output (including its latest, this year's fantastic WALL·E), it's one of the best family movies in a while. The fact that it's the first truly enjoyable Disney cartoon in years just makes it a little sweeter.