Clever casting in Disney's latest animation brings wit and energy to the tale of a self-deluded dog.
When the unsolicited stuffed toy dog Bolt arrived in the mail from Disney, the message regarding its new movie "Bolt" seemed loud and clear: This is a movie for the kids. The little kids. The littlest kids.
So, where does that leave the parents? This is one of the knottiest questions facing studios that produce expensive animated features these days, nervous that the real ticket-buyers (Mom and Dad) will be as bored in the cinemas as they are with the kids in front of the tube on Saturday. Certainly, Pixar Studios, the genius factory of John Lasseter and Brad Bird and a gaggle of the smartest, cleverest folks in Hollywood, long ago cracked this problem.
And, it turns out, so has "Bolt," in general. For starters, Lasseter is executive producer, meaning that a Pixar standard has been applied to the first fully digital 3-D animated feature from Disney's autonomously run animation division. (That's history enough right there.) This means that parents and their kids can expect a well-told story, centering on a likeable dog whose life as the star of his own TV show comes to a crashing halt. It also means that the humor resists being so clever and snide that you're tempted to cover your ears and that it appeals to all age groups. This, as any Hollywood pro can attest, is one of the hardest tricks to pull off.
It also means that "Bolt" looks fabulous. The movie needs to look as superb as it does, not because it's shot in 3-D (to watch this in standard 2-D would be close to a waste), but because the story (by Dan Fogelman and Chris Williams, with story supervision by Nathan Greno) isn't just about a dog, but about the country. There's something both simple and sweet about "Bolt," yet epic, that's entirely surprising.
After a distracting Capra-esque opening scene, the action literally thrusts the viewer into the show, also titled "Bolt," in which the frisky white shepherd (John Travolta's excellent, vulnerable voice) stars alongside Penny (Miley Cyrus), showing off his superpowers. The device offers the filmmakers a chance to spoof Jerry Bruckheimer action movies, but it unexpectedly bridges to the movie's linchpin: Bolt's entire reality is the show and the set, his existence much like a pooch version of "The Truman Show."
If the movie spins off from this terrific idea into more standard material about Bolt accidentally being shipped off in a package to New York – where he meets up with snarky alley cat Mittens (the magnificent Susie Essman) – it also becomes an engaging adventure about survival in America. Like the pet trio of "The Incredible Journey," Bolt, Mittens, and an unlikely hamster ally and fan, Rhino (a hilarious Mark Walton), manage to get all the way back to Hollywood, where Bolt finally absorbs real life. Escapist fare about reality, and in 3-D, is rare enough to stand up and take notice. Grade: A (Rated PG for some mild action and peril.)
• The Monitor's regular critic, Peter Rainer, is on vacation.