Wednesday, December 3, 2008


The new animated 3-D Walt Disney family flick “Bolt” (*** out of ****) is pretty doggone funny. Combine elements of the Arnold Schwarzenegger epic “Last Action Hero” (1993) with the dogs trekking across America in the 1963 Disney classic “The Incredible Journey,” and you’ll have a fair idea about what this cute canine comedy delivers. “Bolt” is the first Disney animated feature produced by the Mouse House since Pixar genius John Lasseter of “Toy Story” fame assumed creative control. Like previous Lasseter movies, such as “Cars,” “A Bug’s Life,” and “Monsters, Inc.,” the animation in “Bolt” is something to bark about. The incomparable 3-D digital projection is what distinguishes this lighthearted flick. Meanwhile, “Mulan” co-scripters Byron Howard and Chris Williams, who teamed up to helm this hilarious hokum, drum up a lot of jokes about a deluded doggie who dreams that he possesses super heroic powers. “Pulp Fiction” star John Travolta furnishes the voice for the feisty German shepherd puppy, and Disney singing sensation Miley Cyrus voices Penny, the teenager who adores Bolt at first sight when she spots the little nipper at an animal shelter.

The premise of “Bolt” is as fetching as it is far-fetched. Bolt—complete with a jagged lightning insignia across his ribs—becomes the top dog of a prime-time, Google Generation, sci-fi TV show. The contemporary equivalent of Lassie, our four-pawed protagonist shows no fear in a crisis. In the context of the show, Penny desperately searches for her father who has been abducted by an evil Bond-type villain, Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell of “A Clockwork Orange”), flanked by two haughty cats. Before Penny’s poppa got kidnapped, he enhanced Bolt with cybernetic powers that make this man’s best friend as powerful as Will Smith’s “Hancock.” Bolt’s prime directive is to protect his ‘person,’ Penny (Miley Cyrus of “Hannah Montana”), from Dr. Calico’s black-clad henchmen. Bolt is so strong that he can smash head-first into a car and send it spinning end-over-end 50 yards in the air. He can turn eyes into molten lasers and burn through anything. Furthermore, he can hightail it down a street faster than a greyhound on afterburners and leap above a hovering helicopter’s whirling rotor blades!

In reality, however, Bolt is nothing more than an average bow-wow. Network TV executives have fooled our hero into thinking that he has cybernetically enhanced brawn. After Bolt has dealt with the villains and gone back to his trailer, the technicians step in and remove the debris. The dead and the wounded get up and brush themselves off. Network executives refuse to let Bolt out of his trailer for fear that he will discover the truth about himself. Nothing Bolt does is real; it’s the result of carefully staged special effects. You can see the resemblance between Bolt and the “Toy Story” character Buzz Lightyear. Everything changes radically for Bolt when two sarcastic cats lure him out of his trailer. During a frantic chase, Bolt traps himself accidentally in a box of pink Styrofoam that is shipped off to New York City. In the Big Apple, three moronic pigeons lead Bolt to a cynical, declawed, black alley cat, Mittens (Susie Essman of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), and our deluded hero takes her hostage so that he can find Penny. Leashed together like Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier were in the 1958 civil rights thriller “The Defiant Ones,” Bolt drags a reluctant Mittens across America to Hollywood. Along the way, Bolt realizes that he is an ordinary mutt. He succumbs to hunger pangs and begs for scraps at an RV park in Ohio. Infinitely wiser than Bolt, Mittens helps the whelp make his transition from super dog to normal hound.

At the Ohio RV park, Bolt and Mittens encounter Rhino. Rhino (voiced by Mark Walton of “Chicken Little”) is an energetic hamster who rolls around in a transparent plastic exercise ball. His favorite pastime is watching TV with his sphere balanced on the remote control so he can channel surf. The clueless Rhino worships Bolt as the super hero of his dreams and accompanies Mittens and Bolt to Las Vegas where they dine off left over casino buffet food in dumpsters. Along the way, Bolt discovers the simple pleasures of riding with his head stuck out a window of a moving vehicle, his ears sailing in the breeze, with his tongue trailing from the corner of his muzzle like a pennant. Just as Bolt is ready to surrender to the brutal, harsh grind of everyday life, Rhino refuses to let his hero sink into self-pity. Actually, this highly strung little hamster steals the show once he joins them, especially in a scene where Bolt and he rescue Mittens from an animal pound.

The biggest problem with “Bolt” is its anticlimactic plot. Nothing after the electrifying first scene can match Bolt’s clash with Dr. Calico’s attack choppers and the phantom motorcyclists that blast away with missiles at our genetically-altered hero. The finale at the studio where Bolt finds that he has been replaced by a doggie double is particularly heartbreaking, but co-directors Howard and Williams don’t let us down. The animators do a splendid job of replicating Travolta’s facial expressions on the snout of the heroic canine and Travolta reads his lines with admirable restraint. Children should enjoy the antics of these talking animals, and the fantastic 3-D digital projection will knock the eyes out of the adults who are worried about surviving this 81-minute comedy without reward. Watching “Bolt” in any format other than 3-D is a waste of time.