With hundreds of episodes in the can, the psychological torture has frayed the dog’s nerves so much that he can’t even enjoy his chew toys. When Dr. Calico’s co-starring cat compatriots—a fat seal point Siamese and a lean Sphinx—whisper threats into the trailer that’s all Bolt knows of the world, the joke has claws. After one too many cliffhangers, Bolt busts out to rescue his mistress once and for all, embarking on a cross-country adventure. According to writers Chris Williams and Dan Fogelman, Bolt has been so sheltered he’s never heard his stomach growl. More reasonable is the moment when he takes his first unchoreographed leap off a speeding train only to look at his paws and channel Lady Macbeth. “What is this red liquid?” he whimpers. “Blood,” pronounces Mittens (Susie Essman), the mangy alley cat he’s taken hostage to find Dr. Calico and his minions. Puffing up Bolt’s delusion is the Mark Walton voiced Rhino, an impressionable, TV-addicted trailer park hamster who blusters that he’s 1/16 wolf.
This cartoon is lightly about the divide between reality and heroism; Bolt overcomes his momentary depression at being just another ordinary dog once Mittens schools him in the pleasures of playing fetch. But it’s really about the bond between animal and owner, a truth as universal and inarguable as WALL*E’s anti-littering stance. With that theme, Bolt plays it safe and sweet—this is comedy for moderates. It’s so devoted to innocuousness that when violent explosions shake the television shoot, directors Williams and Byron Howard cut to a mile away from the blast where the only repercussion is an empty Big Gulp falling off a ledge. The humor shuns the Shrek template of five kiddie jokes to every stealthy naughty adult gag (a ratio that never satiates the chaperones)—it aspires to be smart and good, with everyone laughing together. For those lucky enough to have them as an option, even the 3D effects favor temperance—only one pointless stunt calls attention to the technics on display. For all their craft and wizardry, the graphics choose to submerge the audience in the cartoon’s dimensional world instead of constantly kicking them in the eyeballs to make everybody aware of the animators’ achievement. Bolt isn’t a dazzler, but it’s entertainment with heart.