Featuring the generation-spanning voices of John Travolta and Miley Cyrus as the titular pooch and his owner, Bolt has less crossover appeal than your typical Pixar 'toon. That's the difference between a one-off stocking stuffer and a gift that keeps on giving (e.g., DreamWorks Animation cash cows like Shrek). In other words, a Mouse House franchise-launcher this ain't.
The first Disney CGI 'toon produced since Pixar major domo John Lasseter took creative control of Walt Disney Animation Studios, Bolt has something of a cobbled-together, Chinese-menu feel. Its story of a dog that must travel across country to find his way home inevitably recalls classic live-action Disney fare like 1963's The Incredible Journey (and the less incredible 1993 remake, Homeward Bound). The movie's superhero elements - Bolt is a pampered pup who plays an invincible Rin Tin Tin-like superdog on a popular TV series - hearkens back to Pixar's The Incredibles.
The folksy Middle American towns Bolt passes through bear a striking resemblance to the idealized Americana of Cars. And like a typical Pixar film, Bolt's timeframe is a relative concept. The cutting-edge TV show Bolt stars in could only be a product of the 21st century, yet many of the settings - including a curiously depopulated New York City - have a decidedly retro quality. While first-time directors Chris Williams (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Dan Fogelman) and Byron Howard don't win any marks for originality, they at least deserve credit for borrowing from some pretty classy sources.
Bolt's traveling companion is a cynical, motor-mouthed house-pet-turned-street-cat named Mittens (Susie Essman, Larry David's vitriolic foil on Curb Your Enthusiasm) whose primary job is to teach the self-deluded mutt "nothing you think is real is real." Because Bolt was groomed for stardom at an early age - and because he somehow believes that his TV alter-ego's superpowers are his own - Mittens has her work cut out for her. The rat-a-tat-tat dog and cat bickering grows wearisome after a spell, but the introduction of a chubby little hamster named Rhino (amusingly voiced by Mark Walton) perks things up considerably. In fact, Rhino - whom Mittens and Bolt meet at an Ohio rest stop on the road to Hollywood - is the true breakout character here. He's also the only frisky, furry critter that truly merits its own stand-alone vehicle.
Like last year's Meet the Robinsons, Bolt is out in both "flat" and digital 3-D versions. If you can find a theater near you that offers the latter option, it's definitely worth it. Movies may be getting worse these days, but the bells and whistles are better than ever.