Despite the cuteness factor, ‘Bolt’ can’t match past animated giants

Film animation has experienced a rebirth in recent years as studios have all but completely traded in their drawing pencils for computers. Audiences around the globe have been receptive to these technologically savvy films, which are both visually stunning and mentally gripping for the whole family. They include such gems as DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek” franchise and Pixar Animation Studios’ “Toy Story” series.

“Bolt,” Walt Disney Animation Studios’ tale of a sheltered television-star dog is the latest CGI (computer-generated imagery) flick to take advantage of audiences’ renewed excitement following the release of Pixar’s “WALL-E” this summer. While “Bolt” is a fun family film, it does not measure up to the high standards viewers have come to expect from animated movies.

“Bolt’s” titular character, voiced by John Travolta, is an American White Shepherd who unwittingly stars in his own action/adventure television series, also entitled “Bolt.” To ensure emotional performances by the canine star, the series’ production crew never lets Bolt know he is part of a TV program. They don’t let the pooch see any production equipment, they never re-shoot, and, most importantly, they never let Bolt off the set.

Bolt’s ignorance becomes a problem when the latest episode of his show ends with his on-screen and off-screen “person” (“master” was perhaps too off-color), Penny (voiced by Miley Cyrus), being abducted. Naturally, Bolt is frantic, and he escapes in an attempt to rescue her as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

The premise, while clever, can be quite confusing to the young crowd that is generally attracted to cute dogs and animated movies. It is refreshing for a mainstream movie not to underestimate the audience, but certain parts of the film feel like the creative team tried too hard to arouse adult interest. At one point, for example, a character proclaims that she is full as evidenced by her “distended” belly. The multigenerational appeal of “Shrek,” however, was that the same jokes were at once superficially funny to children and more suggestive to adults.

Once out in the real world (which, to Bolt, is no different from the production set that is his home), Bolt begins his search for Penny, which takes him from Manhattan back to Hollywood. He teams up with a mangy alley cat, Mittens (Susie Essman), and a TV-obsessed hamster, Rhino (Mark Walton), who help him make his way home. The two sidekicks also aid Bolt as he experiences a “Truman Show” (1998)-esque identity crisis and reluctantly learns how to be a real dog.

It is in Bolt’s westward journey that the audience sees the heart and the humor of the film. Both Bolt and Mittens come to terms with their relationships with humans and the disappointment that accompanies being loyal and subservient. At the very least, the emotions expressed by these characters will result in viewers rushing home to shower the family pet with love and affection. If “Bolt” is slightly more successful with its Disney-moral-preaching, the characters will leave lasting impressions about the give and take of interpersonal relationships.

In this sense, the movie does somewhat succeed in emulating the smart, sweet stories of Pixar films, even if it takes a little reading into. “Bolt” is a rare foray from Disney into CGI animation independent of its subsidiary Pixar; unfortunately, the separation is fairly obvious. “Bolt’s” animation is significantly less striking, innovative and consistent than anything put out by Disney/Pixar since “Toy Story” (1995). That is not to say the graphics are lousy; however, “Bolt” is glaringly sub-par to past Disney/Pixar collaborations.

Even if the animation isn’t enough to fill the seats, “Bolt” is full of silly situations and zany characters that provide ample laughs. The highlight, though, is Rhino the hamster, who is as intense and excitable as a small rodent in a plastic ball can be. As Bolt’s ultimate fan, Rhino reminds viewers what a real sidekick is supposed to encompass: fierce loyalty and a penchant for troublesome antics.

While “Bolt” does not quite live up to the expectations of recent animated masterpieces, it is still an entertaining ride from which everyone goes home happy. And if the viewer isn’t satisfied by the happily-ever-after Disney ending or cinema’s greatest hamster sidekick, there’s still one thing that can make even the most hardened of individuals smile: a puppy.