[Screen It]

(2008) (voices of John Travolta, Miley Cyrus) (PG)

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Animated Comedy/Action: The canine star of an action TV show doesn't realize he's really just an actor when he ends up separated from his human and sets off on a cross-country trek with a duo of unlikely helpers to rescue her.
Bolt (voice of JOHN TRAVOLTA) might not be a big dog, but he has super-canine powers that he puts to good use in battling the scheming villain, Dr. Calico (voice of MALCOLM McDOWELL), who repeatedly tries to kidnap Bolt's human, Penny (voice of MILEY CYRUS). Little does Bolt know, however, that his identity and entire experiences are just part of a TV show carefully constructed to prevent him from seeing any of the behind-the-scenes dealings.

Accordingly, when network executive Mindy (voice of KARI WAHLGREN) orders that the show's consistently happy endings - that don't sit well with adult viewers - be changed, the Director (voice of JAMES LIPTON) ends one episode with Calico successfully nabbing Penny. Thinking that's real, Bolt escapes but ends up knocked unconscious in a box that's shipped from Hollywood to New York City.

There, Bolt sets out to find Penny, but can't understand why his usual powers have disappeared. Even so, and thinking she works for Calico, Bolt kidnaps streetwise alley cat Mittens (voice of SUSIE ESSMAN) and the two set off on a cross-country trek back towards Los Angeles. Along the way, they pick up Rhino (voice of MARK WALTON), an overzealous hamster and huge fan of Bolt's who eagerly offers his assistance. From that point on, they race back to Hollywood, unaware that Penny's Agent (voice of GREG GERMANN) has replaced the missing star with a lookalike dog.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
There's a famous, Hollywood insider moment from the making of the 1976 thriller "Marathon Man" where old school acting veteran Laurence Olivier reportedly asked costar Dustin Hoffman -- about the latter's method acting -- why he didn't just try to act, rather than immerse himself so fully in his character.

Although not terribly common, you often hear about performers who stay in character on the set even when the cameras aren't rolling, with the thought that it will help their performance and that of those appearing with them, and make the viewer believe all the more in the portrayal.

Even those, however, drop the thespian shtick once off the soundstage, lest they annoy their family and friends or appear earmarked for a trip to the psychiatric ward. That is, except for the diminutive star of an action-based TV show who always remains in character because, well, that's the only thing he's ever known.

To take such matters to the extreme, his handlers carefully make sure he doesn't even know he's a TV star, leaving him to believe that everything he experiences, and all of the superpowers he possesses, are real. Of course, once he's off the set and on his own, he's in for a big surprise.

That's the cute setup for "Bolt," a computer-animated comedy from Walt Disney Pictures that marks the first such release from the venerable animation studio following its marriage, if you will, with Pixar. With those wildly creative folks simply supervising rather than producing this release, it's not as good as the likes of "Finding Nemo," "Ratatouille" or " WALLoE," but it's still fairly enjoyable, especially for kids, although adults should find enough fun material here to keep them entertained.

In its basic form -- as concocted by co-director Byron Howard, co-director/writer Chris Williams and co-scribe Dan Fogelman -- this is a road trip flick where unlikely travel mates head across the country (back to Hollywood from New York in this case) and discover a thing or two about themselves. For the title character, that means coming to the realization that he's not a superhero but instead just an ordinary pooch who must find his inner dog while, natch, proving he can still be heroic.

Granted, the premise is a bit preposterous (even with a behind-the-scenes sequence showing the crew working feverishly to make Bolt's faux world absolutely real in his eyes, mind and heart), but then again we're talking about yet another movie featuring talking animals, so a lot of slack can be applied.

The vocal work (from the likes of John Travolta and Miley Cyrus) is adequate but mostly unremarkable (save for Mark Walton as a hyped-up hamster who steals every scene in which he's seen and heard) and while the animation might not quite be of Pixar's meticulous standards, it's still fairly good (and will appear in eye-popping 3-D in some venues).

Where it lags behind, however, is in character development, depth and overall tone. Pixar simply has the knack for creating realistic-feeling "human" characters out of its non-human ones, but I never experienced that transformation here. That isn't to say they aren't entertaining or funny (joining the hamster in terms of stealing scenes are various pigeons on both coasts that get some of the best lines), it's just that they don't burrow themselves into the viewer's heart.

Some moments during the road trip also occasionally lag, notably during some of the bickering between Bolt and his cat-napped traveling companion, a streetwise and sarcastic alley feline (voiced by Susie Essman). Although no inter-species relationship was expected, it would have been fun if their comedic antagonism had more spark in the dialogue and the sort of snappy and sassy repartee that once existed in the screwball comedies of old.

I guess the biggest issue is that the film never surprised me, save for various little touches here and there. Talking animals, road trip flicks, and behind-the-scenes Hollywood material aren't anything new, and thus there's no sense of novelty or awe. Of course, not all films need that to succeed, and this pic has enough laughs, action and occasional flourishes of "Pixarness" (Pixarity? Pixarability? you get the point) to earn a passing grade. "Bolt" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed November 12, 2008 / Posted November 21, 2008

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