Putting on the dog in 'Bolt'
Movies in 3D are usually best at goosing you into spilling your soft drink. But "Bolt," a new animated adventure from Disney presented at some locations in 3D, does more than put fireballs and runaway props right on the bridge of your nose. The format brilliantly brings an audience that much closer to a handful of increasingly lonely, yet contagiously enthusiastic, animals.
Bolt (adorably voiced by John Travolta) is a white German shepherd who's the eponymous star of a hit TV show about a superdog and his spunky owner. (It looks like "MacGyver" and "Inspector Gadget" pressed into a rather dull video game.)
The joke is that Bolt believes the show is real. Its pretentious director (James Lipton, outside the Actors Studio), insists that's what ensures an authentic performance every week, so the Hollywood production has to maintain the illusion. That includes the two cats who play the evil villain's feline accessories and show up at Bolt's trailer to mock their naive costar.
The ruse dismays the show's child star, Penny (Miley Cyrus). All she wants is to take Bolt home, which, of course, would be a violation of the "Truman Show"-like conceit.
This stuff is clever, in the reflexively satirical, self-aware way that many animated films are. It's not until the dog is accidentally shipped off to New York City that the movie lets you in on an altogether more interesting idea: It doesn't want to be that cool. In New York, Bolt discovers that his "superbark" (trademarked, I'm sure) no longer supersonically mows down entire armies and that his shoulder chop doesn't really knock people out. He's just a dog, but one who still believes his fictional owner is in trouble.
Eventually Bolt is drawn into the company of a perilously thin cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) and Rhino, an obese, scene-stealing hamster in a plastic ball (Mark Walton), who recognizes Bolt from "the magic box" and is thrilled beyond words to join the rescue mission back to Los Angeles. The movie, which was written by Dan Fogelman and the co-director Chris Williams, seamlessly combines its action duties (always be moving) with its emotional inclinations (always be feeling). So you understand that each time Mittens has to tell her new friend that he is destructible, it hurts her that much more.
If you've ever seen Essman as Jeff Garlin's obscenely abusive wife on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," it seems unfathomable that she'd be hired to provide the kind of patient support called for here (were Amy Adams or Renée Zellweger unavailable?). But Essman proves as capable a friend as she does a frenemy on HBO, never more so than when Mittens exposes Bolt to the joys of being a dog - his tongue wagging from the side of a moving vehicle is a highlight.
The road trip back to Hollywood allows the dog, the cat, and the hamster to see America, and the montage that takes them west is a heart-soaring sequence set to a "This Land Is Your Land" country-gospel song about homesickness, sung by Jenny Lewis. Not much later there's a funny pair of droll pigeons and a climactic inferno that evokes the wildfires still burning in Southern California.
But that song still played on a loop in my head. It's part of the movie's resounding suggestion that the Hollywood entertainment factory can be an exploitative kind of Oz and that animals, even chatty Disney ones, are happiest when they're chasing sticks.