America's most important animator has written and directed just one movie since the turn of the century, though he's put his handprint on almost two dozen shorts and features over that span.
Things get better when he ropes writers and directors into production meetings. Those can drag on for years, as they did with “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E,” but Pixar's unbroken string of well-respected hits testifies to his skill. And now that John Lasseter is also in charge of Disney's animation, the Mouse House has reaped the benefits. Case in point: “Bolt.”
The action-packed, sight gag-crammed trailer led me to expect the mayhem Disney unleashed in “Meet the Robinsons,” which had Lasseter's name on it as executive producer but didn't have the man himself along from start to finish. Instead, “Bolt” shows the warmth, balanced humor and not-quite-over-the-top excitement we associate with Pixar. (The opening sequence alone proves directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams could've made a better Bond sequel than Marc Forster.)
The plot has echoes of “The Truman Show”: Bolt, star of a popular TV program, believes he's a superdog capable of stopping a speeding truck with his snout or buckling a highway with his bark. Just as Truman did, he must accept that what he thought of as real life is a carefully manufactured popular entertainment, in which everyone but he is wise to the gimmick.
Yet the script by Dan Fogelman and Williams goes beyond that premise to teach kids a wise lesson: Dream big, but learn your capabilities and exploit them to the fullest, whatever your limitations may be. Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) gets wised up by a lonely, suspicious alley cat (Susie Essman), but he learns that vulnerability isn't a disaster. Meanwhile, he teaches Mittens the feline that commitment to others need not bring an end to freedom.
“Bolt” has the magical quality of great animation, the ability to touch us without the hint of preachiness or manipulation. It doesn't seem calculated to sell toys or action figures, as so many Disney movies did in the 1980s and '90s. (Though I warn you that kids may want a hamster after watching Rhino, Bolt's irrepressible sidekick, conquer the world from inside his transparent plastic ball.)
The movie follows the conventional lost-then-found, imperiled-then-rescued template that this kind of animated story usually gets, but it's executed with taste and believability. Lasseter and crew have chosen precisely the right voices, too. Travolta may be cast for bankability, but he's an endearing dog.
Animator Mark Walton gets his first significant role as cheerful Rhino, setting off the winsome Travolta and waggish Essman. The apt cast includes Malcolm McDowell as a villain on Bolt's TV show, Greg Germann as an agent who hears nothing but the clink of cash registers, and tweenie sensation Miley Cyrus as Bolt's human co-star on the show and best friend. (She does a sensitive job.)
Lasseter, whose favorite movie is “Dumbo,” has made careful use of 3-D technology while making sure the movie will work when shown like one of the “flat” classics of his childhood, as it will be in most theaters. (StoneCrest and Northlake have it in 3-D.)
The third dimension is used mostly to supply visual depth, not to shock or startle us; the effect I remember most is a joke with a Styrofoam peanut. Lasseter wants to wed new technology to old-fashioned storytelling, which is wise. A fellow named Walt Disney did that more than seven decades ago.