The antics of a dog who confuses his day job as the canine superhero in a TV action series with his real-life skills is plenty high-concept. But in Bolt — a blithe, digitally animated (and in select theaters 3-D) doggy comedy as zippy as its name?the fanciful premise only paws the surface of what’s going on as we sit in the dark wearing plastic 3-D glasses.

The basic story bears the distinctive DNA of the Disney family of dramas. Bolt?s a spunky white shepherd voiced by — look who’s talking! — John Travolta. He lives 24/7 on a Hollywood soundstage that he thinks is the whole wide world — his own canine Truman Show — until he’s accidentally separated from his ”person” and TV costar, Penny (Miley Cyrus), and shipped in a cargo crate to New York City. Of course, imaginary superpowers don’t count for much in such a sleepless city of caffeinated, mortal go-getters. But never mind. The dog sticks to his belief in his canine invincibility — and in the constancy of his person, wherever she is. (Penny’s got a smarmy agent, voiced by Greg Germann, who’s just so annoyingly…agenty as he urges her to forget about her missing costar.) Bolt remains loyal even when hassled by Mittens, a skinny, wiseacre New York alley cat who couldn’t have found a more perfect mouthpiece than the one supplied by Susie Essman, the sharp-tongued comedian who berated Larry David so bawdily on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Naturally, Essman plays PG-feisty rather than foulmouthed here. But she projects just the right hiss of mischief. When Bolt believes that Styrofoam packing material is his kryptonite — a mystery element that weakens him — Mittens cleverly endorses the lie.

Well, what with one thing and another, Mittens joins Bolt’s cross-country trip to get back to Penny and the city of valet parking. And along the duo’s hitchhiking route, they meet up in an RV park with Rhino (Mark Walton), a hamster who, giddy pop culture addict that he is, recognizes Bolt as his favorite TV celebrity. Rhino throws himself into the mission (rolls himself, actually, in his Plexiglas exercise ball) with the gallant geek bravado that is the mark of a superfan. Soon, the three amigos are off, off on a classic obstacle-strewn, personal-growth adventure involving funny mishaps, demonstrations of individual heroism, scary scrapes (that, even at their scariest, carry the assurance that things will turn out all right), episodes of losing hope, examples of regaining determination, instances of heartwarming reunion (oops, did I give something away?), and moments involving other funny talking wildlife that make cameo appearances. The New York pigeons are particular pips; maybe they’re related to the flock that helped Amy Adams’ Giselle in Enchanted?

That’s the blueprint. But Bolt impresses on more levels than just the basic — and in our wised-up, self-reflexive pop culture universe, audiences are primed to play along with the movie’s sophisticated meta references to Hollywood culture, New York culture, TV culture, and even doggy culture: Look! It’s a joke about Finding Nemo, about Hollywood agents, about pitching screenplay ideas! (The bright script is by Dan Fogelman and Chris Williams, the sleek direction by Disney pros Williams and Byron Howard.) In our 21st-century familiarity with the results, we don’t give the intricate technobeauty of digital 3-D animation a second thought, taking for granted the subtleties of dimension, perspective, texture, and motion that can be achieved (with the right computer programs); on a regular old night at the movies, we don’t blink twice at seeing the most gorgeous visual shifts and adjustments, delicate and thoughtful as an old master’s brushstrokes. There’s a stunning throwaway moment when Rhino the hamster rolls in his stupid plastic ball in front of his new compatriots, and the faces of dog and cat, seen through the plastic, are distorted as they would be in real life — yet we pay no attention to the army of animation artists marshaled just for that one passing sequence.

Bolt breaks no great new stylistic ground — and yet it’s a sturdy beaut. The cartoon chase scenes are of secondary importance — and yet they’re wittier and more exciting than anything in Quantum of Solace. It’s a great day in America when the complicated looks so easy, and when we expect smart storytelling as a rule, not the exception. A-

Director Bryon Howard talks about Bolt

  • Movie
  • 96 minutes