It has been a long time since a Disney animation project unassociated with Pixar captured the hearts of its audience. In fact, it has been almost a decade since “Tarzan” was released, and it is even a stretch to call that worthy enough to enter the holy realm of Disney classics that are stored away in Walt’s vault. Fortunately, “Bolt” brings some credit back to the founders of quality animation with its captivating combination of colorful characters, heartwarming comedy and even a little action.
The smartest move Disney made with this film was to bring in some fresh talent rather than reuse the directors who were responsible for the company’s numerous past failures. Despite not having any previous directing experience, Byron Howard and Chris Williams were able to put together a film that recaptures some of the old Disney magic by not trying to create something slick and that’s never done before.
Although writers Dan Fogelman (“Fred Claus”) and Williams (“The Emperor’s New Groove”) have had some troubles of late coming up with some watchable material, their screenplay for this film has shades of some of their past work in “Cars” (Fogelman) and “Mulan” (Williams). Despite the fact that the main plot of going on a journey and finding your “true self” is nothing new, “Bolt” actually feels like “Homeward Bound” if you were to subtract a dog and add in a hamster.
Bolt (John Travolta, “Hairspray”) is the world’s greatest superdog who has been genetically altered to protect his owner Penny (Miley Cyrus, “Hannah Montana”) with powers like lightning-quick speed and an earth-shattering bark. Unfortunately, Bolt only thinks he is the world’s greatest superdog when, in fact, he is just the star on a hit TV show who has been kept in the dark to enhance his method acting. This changes, though, when he breaks free from the studio and heads out on a mission with Mittens the cat (Susie Essman, “The Man”) and his biggest fan, Rhino the hamster (Mark Walton, “Chicken Little”) to find Penny.
While this 48th addition to Disney’s list of theatrical animated features does not quite live up to the animation giant’s unparalleled classics, it matches these films’ ability to delight audiences of all ages. Although this movie will naturally entertain its targeted audience, it is the kind of film that older viewers will enjoy too, for not only its content but also the feeling of nostalgia it creates for the days when you could just curl up on the couch and spend all afternoon with Pinocchio, Peter Pan and Ariel.
The main reason why this film has such a wide-ranging appeal is it is surprisingly funny. The creators wisely opted to use more developed, witty humor which results in some hilarious supporting characters — notably the movie’s best feature, Walton’s performance as Rhino.
Travolta gives a rather safe performance as Bolt in that he does not do anything noteworthy enough to generate any praise or disproval. He does a decent job but, at the same time, he brings nothing to the character. The producers would have been just as well off and would have saved a lot of money in the process if they had just hired some no-name actor in place of Travolta.
A close second for the smartest move in the making of this film was stopping short of making this movie a Miley Cyrus vehicle. Although it would be fantastic to see Disney create a move towards returning to the music-driven films of the past, which collectively won Oscars for Best Song four out of the five years from 1991-95, a movie saturated with Cyrus songs would be an absolute train wreck. That said, Cyrus has just the right amount of lines to effectively play her character without getting too annoying. She does, however, have one song in the film, a duet with Mr. Travolta himself, but it is played during the credits so if you get out quickly enough you can save yourself the pain.
All in all, “Bolt” is a refreshing bit of entertainment, and Disney deserves a long-awaited pat on the back for proving that Pixar is not the only one in the family capable of computer animation. With this success, there is actually some hope for the next three films that have already been announced by Disney.
3 1/2 stars out of 5.