Bolt (voice of John Travolta) thinks he is a super-dog. He and his “person,” Penny (voice of Miley Cyrus) spend their days battling the evil, green-eyed Dr. Calico (voice of Malcolm McDowell), who has captured Penny’s scientist father and has a lair defended by dozens of black-clad henchmen. Thank goodness for Bolt’s loyalty and courage and for his thunderous super-bark and heat vision, too!
But what Bolt doesn’t know is that none of this is real. He’s an actor on a television show and his “superpowers” are special effects. The director insists that Bolt must believe that it is all really happening in order to make his performance, well, believable. “If the dog believes it,” he explains condescendingly to “Mindy from the network,” “the audience believes it.”
Bolt accidentally gets shipped to New York, and for the first time finds out what the real world is like — and what he is really like, too. Even without the super-bark and the steel-melting stare, he has to find his way back to Penny.
This feels like a transitional film, as Pixar takes over Disney animation, and the seams show. Bolt is a likable character, but bland next to those around him, especially the pigeons, who deserve much more screen time, and those who accompany him on his road trip, a scraggly cat (voice of Susie Essman of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and an excitable hamster (animator Mark Walton). Bolt’s dilemma may be confusing to younger children who are still unclear with their own notions of what is real and what is pretend and may not be interested in the problems of a child star with a pushy agent. But in its best moments, it gently shows us how Bolt’s discoveries parallel those of a child in learning self-reliance.
Children have an ever-evolving sense of what is real and what is pretend. Developmental psychologists believe that it is not until age nine or even older that they are sure about whether what they see in movies and television is really true and still engage in “magical thinking” that parents can approve of (that Santa lives in the North Pole) and that is more troubling (that they caused parental discord or separation). Being able to repeat “it’s only pretend” does not mean that they understand what it means. “Bolt” is a movie that reflects this aspect of childhood.