Animated features intended for families come in two varieties: films with personality and a genuine sense of humor, and films in which characters stand around cracking jokes like they were doing stand-up in the Catskills. The former used to be the exclusive property of Pixar, but that is starting to change. Case in point: "Bolt."
Starring John Travolta and Miley Cyrus as voice talent in the story of a dog who doesn't know he's canine, "Bolt" is the first animated feature to come out of the Disney Studios since Pixar guru John Lasseter took over the shop. And that has made a difference.
At the end of the day, "Bolt" is a sweet Disney family film, but Lasseter's oversight has made it smarter than it otherwise would have been. It's not in Pixar's league, but it's laced with idiosyncratic characters with pleasantly wacky attitudes. That may sound like the obvious thing to do but that doesn't mean anyone else has done it.
As written by Chris Williams and Dan Fogelman, and co-directed by Williams and Byron Howard, "Bolt" also has an intriguing plot that is kind of the family animation version of the Jim Carrey-starring "The Truman Show." Similar to Truman, Bolt (Travolta) is living in a TV series that he thinks is real life. He truly believes he's a dog with superpowers, dedicated to saving his owner, Penny (Cyrus), when he's just a hound with an acting job.
"Bolt" opens with a glimpse of that TV series. It's an amusing spoof of "Bourne Identity"-type films that has this pint-sized crime fighter head-butting cars, dangling them over bridges in his teeth and in general destroying everything in his path.
Penny, bless her heart, would like to take Bolt home every night and let him be a real dog, but Penny's unctuous agent (Greg Germann) and the show's director (James Lipton of "Inside the Actors Studio") will not hear of it. "If the dog believes it's real, the audi- ence believes it," the director says, pointing proudly to "a depth of emotion never captured before" in Bolt's performance.
A combination of accidents not only gets Bolt out of the Hollywood studio, it deposits him a continent away on the mean streets of Manhattan, in search of a Penny he's convinced has been kidnapped and perplexed that his superpowers seem to be mysteriously on the wane.
Because Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell), the prime evildoer of the TV series, has a fondness for cats, Bolt decides to shanghai a cat to help him find Penny even though he considers felines to be "degenerate creatures of darkness."
Mittens, the cat that a group of decidedly offbeat pigeons points Bolt to, turns out to be a real piece of work. Beautifully voiced by "Curb Your Enthusiasm's" Susie Essman, the cynical and sarcastic Mittens can't believe she has been literally dragged against her will into this delusional dog's irrational fantasies.
As this odd couple travels across country, they're joined by a third musketeer, a deranged hamster named Rhino (voiced by very funny Disney artist Mark Walton), who is a big fan of Bolt's TV show and is given to saying unhamster-like things such as "I eat danger for breakfast." No wonder Mittens is always rolling her eyes.
Together, this strange troupe gets a bead on Penny's whereabouts and Bolt learns how to be a regular dog instead of a standard-issue superhero. They do this, in case you're interested, because "you never abandon a friend in a time of need."
Because "Bolt" understands how to be funny -- keep an eye out for some screenwriting pigeons -- these pint-sized life lessons go down really easily, the way they did during the golden age of Disney. It's nice to have a whiff of Walt with us again.
MPAA rating: PG for some mild action and peril Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: In general release