They say you can't be all things to all people, and that's especially true of movies. But Disney's latest animated release, Bolt (rated PG for mild action and peril) comes close. It displays at once a snarky pop-culture savvy and a sincere, old-fashioned heart.
It's hard to imagine that kids 20 years ago would possess enough media knowledge to process the story-within-a-story that propels Bolt. But today's texting, programming youngsters will likely have no problem absorbing the Truman Show-esque plot that has loyal pup Bolt (John Travolta) believing that he possesses superpowers and needs to protect his owner Penny (Miley Cyrus) at all costs. Little does he know that the gates he crashes are breakaway props and the enemies who drop at a swipe of his paw are, like Penny, really actors. When Bolt accidentally wanders off his studio lot and winds up in New York City, he meets a street-smart cat, Mittens (Susie Essman), who sets him straight: He's just another dog and must rely on his natural canine talents if he ever wants to get back to Los Angeles and Penny.
From the outset Bolt displays a Hollywood-insider sense of humor that will have adults rolling without ever being inappropriate for kids. James Lipton of Inside the Actor's Studio fame does a wonderful send-up of a director a little overly enthralled with his own artistic integrity. And Greg Germann (best known as Fish from Ally McBeal) hilariously nails all that is wrong with child-acting as Penny's scheming agent.
However, that kind of edgy humor is where many animated films leave things today. Bolt, instead, then develops a story line that takes its characters across the heartland of America and generates a loopy, naïve comedy style as well. I haven't laughed as hard at many grow-up comedies as I did at certain scenes of Bolt and Mittens traveling across Ohio and Missouri. By the end, the film shows kids bombarded by images of excess in Tinsel Town the charms of simple, middle-class life.
But the real appeal of the movie is Bolt himself. The combined talents of the Disney animators and John Travolta's earnest voice-work make for one lovable mutt. It's unlikely anyone who owns a dog will fail to see their own best animal friend in the stalwart, devoted Bolt. Not to be outdone, Essman's performance as a tough feline with a heart of gold will make cat-lovers smile as well.
One more example of Bolt's everyman appeal: As expected, while the credits rolled, the under-11 set cheered. But while shuffling out of the theater, a group of oh-so-hip teenage girls carrying designer purses quoted the films funniest lines back and forth at each other as they would with any Judd Apatow comedy, with one also commenting, "Oh my gosh, I had to try so hard not to cry."