Ever since Disney disbanded its cel-animation unit and went full CGI, its feature cartoons—Chicken Little, The Wild, Meet The Robinsons—have seemed painfully calculated and pandering, more an attempt to catch up with the current burgeoning kid-film market than to lead it. Bolt is the studio's first film since Lilo & Stitch that feels like it's trying to recapture the old Disney instead of aggressively shedding it in favor of something slick and new. And yet it comes with a healthy cutting-edge Pixar flavor as well. It's tempting to lay both aspects firmly at the feet of John Lasseter, the Pixar honcho who became Disney Animation's chief creative officer when Disney bought Pixar; in spite of its mostly animal protagonists, Bolt has a humanity rarely seen in the CGI world outside of Pixar's features, which Lasseter has generally had a hand in.
Bolt's premise is ridiculous by design: A dog named Bolt (voiced by John Travolta), raised on the set of a TV show, completely believes in its premise that he has superpowers, and that he's the one barrier between his owner Penny (Miley Cyrus) and evil mastermind Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell). This never fully makes sense, but the film gamely explains it away: According to an impresario director (James Lipton), the show only works because Bolt is living his role, and so long as he believes it, the audience will. Unfortunately, a ratings-motivated change in plans accidentally leaves Bolt in New York City, convinced that he's been robbed of his powers, and that Penny is in mortal danger in Hollywood. With two companions—a reluctant alley cat (Susie Essman) and an overeager fanboy hamster (Mark Walton)—Bolt sets out on an Incredible Journey-style trip to save the day.
Bolt starts out like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, immersing viewers in Bolt's imaginary world before pulling back for perspective. But the opening sequence is more than a goof; it's a fast-paced, pitch-perfect TV parody that's simultaneously cheeky and rousing, with action that mimics Pixar's The Incredibles. The depth and heart is all Pixar, too: While the story mines the premise's comic possibilities, mostly stemming from Bolt's gung-ho, naïve delusions, it also explores the characters' vulnerabilities and how their relationships fill emotional gaps. And at the same time, the action level stays high. First-time directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams—both Disney animation vets—focus on realistic motion for the cartoon-y animals, especially the film's disturbingly believable pigeons. For the first time in years, it feels like Disney has done its namesake proud.