Walt Disney started out with a mouse, 80 years ago this week, but his company has done all right by dogs too. If Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians can't be numbered among the animation studio's most ambitious projects, they both had a high satisfaction quotient. No wonder: the canine attributes of curiosity, affection and unshakable loyalty are an ideal fit for Disney family values of any era. (Cats, not so much.) From the live-action pup opera Old Yeller in the '50s, to the mixed-media friskiness of this fall's Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Disney has paraded and profited from its pooch panache.
Bolt, the first Disney animated feature made under the supervision of Pixar creative boss John Lasseter, has a premise straight out of Chihuahua: an adorable, pampered L.A. dog gets dropped into an alien environment and has to find its way back home, learning lessons of friendship, confidence and self-reliance en route. (It's also the premise of 140,000 other movies about animals, kids or hobbits.) Bolt fits this familiar mold without looking moldy. Its visual style is unpretentiously attractive, with a limber graphic line, and there's little showboating in the design or the dialogue. Directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard are perfectly pleased to have labored in the service of that humblest of genres, the dog cartoon. (See TIME's top 10 dog movies)
The story, though, is high-concept and high-maintenance. In the Bond-worthy opening action scene, Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is introduced as a Superdog: faster than Speed Racer, more powerful than Benji, able to hold a dangling car between his teeth, plus his gifts of bent-track laser-vision and the amazing thunder bark all to help his "human," Penny (Miley Cyrus), escape an army of bad guys. He could be the family dog of the Incredibles. What Bolt doesn't know, yet, is that all this mayhem and all his powers are fake. He's the star of a TV adventure series, and if he weren't so focused on his Penny-paving mission he might notice the cameras, stunt men and effects technicians. Bolt, in other words, is a canine Truman Show, whose producers think he'll give a more intense performance if he thinks it's real.
Thanks to conniving from the usual slimy coven of agents and network execs and a tumble of coincidences nearly as endearing as they are preposterous Bolt is shipped to New York City, where he strikes up a quick animosity with a sassy cat named Mittens (Curb Your Enthusiasm's Susie Essman). Their itinerary will be no secret to the youngest of viewers: cat and dog, joined by Rhino (Disney animator Mark Walton), a hamster who travels in a Plexiglas ball. Through Rhino, a diehard fan of the TV show, Bolt realizes that his powers aren't so super, and he comes to suspect that Penny was just another jaded Hollywood actress who'd forget about him when she left the set.
There are stretches when the animal trio's westward trek packs no more excitement or amusement than a Presidential candidates slog through the prairie-state primaries. Mittens' yenta-like attitude can get grating, and for a while Rhino is the only character with much wit or verve.
But from the moment Bolt sticks his head out the window of a speeding truck and feels the breeze of freedom and free will, the picture snaps to life and instantly acquires heart (Lasseter's favorite movie organ). Of course each character gets to show a heroism all the more special for being displayed without special effects. Indeed, Rhino's climactic declaration of purpose that "All my dreaming has prepared me for this moment" might be the motto, not just of this very satisfying film, but of the Disney-Pixar animators. They're smart kids who dream for a living.
It's a satisfaction of another sort to have movies that appeal to the deepest, dreamiest parts of a tyro moviegoer's soul. In the pre-Thanksgiving lull, parents can take their young'uns to Bolt, drop their 10-to-14-year-olds off at Twilight, and the whole family will have survived the weekend. All it takes is a handsome vampire's bite and a cute dog's bark.