One could forgive a movie aimed at children for shamelessly cribbing plot points from “The Last Action Hero” and “The Truman Show” — which “Bolt” totally does — since its target audience is ostensibly not familiar with movies that came out way back in the ’90s. But when the canine protagonist of “Bolt” borrows a character arc from Buzz Lightyear, even youngsters will smell a rip-off.
Bolt (voiced by John Travolta), you see, is a super-powered dog — he can jump great distances, defeat evildoers and even destroy tanks with his super-bark. Or so he thinks, anyway.
The reality is that Bolt is the star of a TV show, but no one tells him that all his adventures are fictional because his performances ring truer if he thinks he’s actually rescuing young Penny (Miley Cyrus) from the sinister army that has kidnapped her father. When all the actors and crew go home for the day, Bolt stays in his trailer, ever vigilant against the bad guys.
When a couple of the actor-cats taunt him one day, he escapes the trailer and, through a series of mishaps, gets shipped cross-country. Arriving in New York, he’s determined to get back to Hollywood and Penny with the assistance of Mittens (Susie Essman), a selfish alley cat who finds herself unwillingly along for the ride.
As their trek cross-country continues, Mittens realizes that Bolt doesn’t actually have any powers that aren’t provided by a special-effects department. Eventually, so does Bolt, who is devastated. (And here’s where we get into Buzz Lightyear territory, down to a scene where an accidental confluence of events suggests that Bolt does have superpowers, thus shamelessly ripping off the I-can-TOO-fly moment from “Toy Story.”)
With the help of Rhino (Mark Walton), a hamster-in-a-ball who’s a big fan of Bolt’s TV show, the unlikely trio rescue each other from scrapes and must decide whether Penny’s love in L.A. is worth leaving behind the dumpster-diving paradise of Las Vegas.
One can forgive a Disney cartoon for having predictable plot beats, but “Bolt” exists in a strange plane regarding what it expects kids to understand about show business. On the one hand, it throws around gags about boom mikes, method acting, agents and writers’ pitches that assume its young viewers came out of the womb reading Entertainment Weekly; on the other, we’re supposed to willfully forget everything we know about how TV is actually made. (All of Bolt’s complicated action scenes are filmed in one take, in real time, with no doubles and no digital effects.)
If there’s anything that stands out in “Bolt,” it’s the hilarious and occasionally moving performance by Essman, who makes Mittens as fully complete and compelling a character as WALL-E or Dory the forgetful fish from “Finding Nemo.” (Travolta and Cyrus are urged to keep their day jobs.)
“Bolt” is, at least, lovely to look at, and the kids in the screening I attended remained mostly attentive (despite the occasional query of “Why is he sad?” to their parents). It will make a preferable alternative to a third viewing of “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” or “High School Musical 3,” but it’s nowhere near the level of any of the Pixar titles or of last year’s underrated charmer “Meet the Robinsons.”