With his blazing white coat and pig-pink ears, to say nothing of the zigzag of lightning cut into his flank, the eponymous canine lead of Disney's lively new animated movie Bolt looks a little bit real and a whole lot not. That's not a failure of craft: Goofy and sweet like his voicer, John Travolta (though mercifully unaffiliated with strange churches), Bolt is both a regular hound and a celebrity pooch, the co-star of a pointedly surreal action-adventure television series whose production designer appears to be going through a Fritz Lang period. At the sound of "Fetch!" Bolt will overturn speeding cars with his snout, outrun aircrafts that look like giant mosquitoes and face down the cat-loving bad guy, Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell), all for the higher good of protecting his "person," Penny (Miley Cyrus), a mildly funky nymph fully equipped with the habitual spunk of a Disney New Feminist. Egged on by a manic Director (sonorously voiced by Inside the Actor's Studio host James Lipton) with auteur blow-dried into his big hair, the loyal little canine fondly believes that his special powers are real — until a packing accident on the studio lot results in his being shipped off in pink Styrofoam to New York City, where reality awaits by the shovelful.
Poor Bolt! Not only must he outperform Twilight at the box office this weekend, he's also tasked with reminding the tots whom the Walt Disney Company has bombarded with showy heroics and whiz-bang effects (or at least their worrywart parents seeking positive values) that ordinary goodness will do just as well — if not better. It's no accident that Penny's mom (Grey DeLisle) is plump and maternal and the caring antithesis of a stage mother. Like every other kids' movie coming off the line these days, Bolt carries two tales for the price of one, both handled by Disney veterans and first-time directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard with wit, grace and the dazzling craftsmanship we've come to expect from the studio that's hitched its wagon to Pixar. One is a sweetly naturalistic road movie for little kids, in which Bolt, anxious to get back to Hollywood to watch over Penny, rides the rails of America's heartland, learning how to be Everydog under the tutelage of the world-weary cat Mittens (voiced by Susie Essman, who plays Jeff Garlin's implacable wife on television's Curb Your Enthusiasm) and a fan-boy hamster (Mark Walton), both of whom all but walk away with the movie.
Real trumps surreal: Bolt gets to experience hunger, loneliness, the pain of realizing that his lightning bolt smudges in the rain, the consoling pleasures of friendship and the knowledge that you don't have to jump through hoops to be a hero. This is standard studio stuff, along with the durable fantasy that the good life dwells not on either glitzy coast but in the great middle American mass, airbrushed of its supermalls and commercial strips and filled with rolling fields and welcoming RVs laden with scraps for hungry itinerant dogs. Only Brad Bird, with The Incredibles and Ratatouille, has separated himself from the kid-movie cult of ordinariness and conformity to celebrate ambition and standing out from the crowd.
Is it hypocritical that the grown-up story embedded in Bolt is a deft, if hardly original, skewering of Hollywood duplicity featuring a ratings-obsessed network harridan, an agent (Greg Germann) who's drawn like an albino Michael Tolkin and will do anything to keep Penny happy and working so he can pocket his percentage, and some well-upholstered pigeons obsessively pushing story ideas? As I laughed my head off, I wondered what it means that children's movies have become the playground for Hollywood's self-loathing. Yet the self-mockery in Bolt is gentle and affectionate, and there's something touching about the yearning for ordinary life and decency that, to judge by its ubiquity in films for the nominally innocent, plagues those who live and work in the realms of the unreal.