Disney animation takes a tentative step out of the shadows of Pixar with "Bolt," a winning 3D-animated action-comedy that marries the best Disney traditions with Pixar polish. Though this road comedy of a lost TV star dog doesn't rival the classics from Disney's computer-animation pioneer partners, it's the first in-house Disney animation - after the middling "Chicken Little," "The Wild" and "Meet the Robinsons" - to bear comparison to the Pixar gold standard.
In a dazzling 10-minute opening, we're treated to a sort of "Bolt Supremacy," the adventures of a teenage girl and her "genetically altered" superdog, a canine capable of leaping over black helicopters in a single bound, blowing up objects with his glower and flattening armies with his "superbark."
Whenever Penny (voiced by Miley Cyrus) is in danger, Bolt is there to save her.
But Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) isn't in on the gag. The effects go off around him and he thinks he did it. The bars on a prison cell bend, because they're rubber, and he doesn't know. It's all to preserve Bolt's delusional sense of urgency, the show's director (James Lipton of "Inside the Actor's Studio") insists.
So Bolt is particularly ill-suited to be on his own. When he's accidentally shipped to New York, he has to make his way back to Hollywood and Penny using not his vaunted superpowers but his wit. He has a slow realization that he's not the dog he always thought he was.
"Normally, I'm a tad more indestructible," he complains to the cat he kidnaps because he thinks cats are part of the vast feline conspiracy of "the green-eyed man," the TV' show's villain. Mittens (Susie Essman) has the thankless job of bringing the superdog back to Earth, of explaining to him the ways of the world.
She has to because the other sidekick they pick up along the way is a fat, furry fan boy in hamster form - Rhino. He travels in a hamster ball and just loves Bolt on the "magic box" (TV).
The 3D animation here is less gimmicky than is usual for movies that you have to watch through the funny glasses. It just makes the images sharper. Bolt may be more verbal than your typical Disney 'toon, but it's a comedy with the patience to let a slow-burn gag pay off.
But it's not just about the laughs. It's a cartoon that goes to great pains to mimic and mock real dog behavior, much of which Mittens has to teach Bolt, who's never had to beg. It's about a girl who loves her dog and the dog who loves her back. And that heart makes "Bolt" the best Disney cartoon to not have the Pixar name on it since "Lilo & Stitch."