by Jeff Meyers
Best Hampster. Evah! Which says more than you'd think about a film centered around a lost dog searching for its teenage owner. It's not uncommon for a bit comedic player to steal the spotlight, especially in an animated kiddie gagfest. Still, once you get past the rock-'em, sock-'em opening chase scene, Bolt's greatest asset is a bucktoothed rotund ball of fluff named Rhino, exuberantly voiced by Mark Walton. (Expect to see stuffed versions of this critter on sale everywhere come Christmas.)
Though the story may not have the punch and panache of a Pixar flick (no brainy thematic subtexts here), it does benefit from Disney's ability to push a concept (and joke) to its limits. As a result, Bolt is an entertaining 96-minute jaunt that beats the pants off most CG tot flicks but still plays like Pixar-lite.
A canine TV action star, Bolt (a vocally spry John Travolta) lives in a studio-created reality that has led him to believe he's truly a canine superhero, vigilantly protecting his owner, Penny (Miley Cyrus), from the evil Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell). The poor pup's so fooled by the world he lives in, so committed to his job, that he's incapable of relaxing or even enjoying a casual ball toss. Worse, the show's cats are in on the secret, tormenting Bolt with late night visits to his trailer.
Through a series of mishaps, Bolt ends up shipped to New York, convinced Penny has been kidnapped. Stranded in the real world, he slowly realizes that none of his super powers are real. Still, his mission's clear: to find the little girl he loves. Teamed with a cynical alley cat named Mittens (Curb Your Enthusiasm's Susie Essman) and Rhino, the hilarious hamster-in-a-ball (and Bolt fanboy), he struggles on a cross-country trek to Hollywood to reunite with Penny.
Yup, it's a cross between the pooch version of The Truman Show and Toy Story. Which leads you to wonder whether tots are really ready for a meta-style narrative where Hollywood comments on itself. Recurring jokes involving a craven talent agent, Penny's entourage and dated asides ("Hold it, Cujo") will, undoubtedly, sail right over kids' heads. Still, the predictable story (even its lackluster Lassie-inspired final act) has a big heart and inventive action set pieces — in particular, a crazily kinetic opening chase that recalls the best moments of The Incredibles. Plus, the 3-D effects do a wonderful job of deepening the movie's deft animation without relying on pop-out-of-the-screen gimmicks. It ain't the glorious Wall-E or effervescent Kung Fu Panda, but it'll do in a pinch.