“Nothing you think is real is real.” Voiced by the alley cat Mittens (Susie Essman), this guide to life amounts to the primary conceit of Bolt. It’s at least partly clever. The titular dog (John Travolta) is a TV star who believes his own fiction, that he’s a super-powered pup who protects his girl, Penny (Miley Cyrus, famously affiliated with her own TV fiction), against all evil forces. In the world of his weekly show, Bolt is ever heroic and courageous, battling villains and tireless. At night, after each shoot, he’s confined to his trailer, where he waits uncomplainingly for Penny to come back the next morning — watching the door and never suspecting that he’s being lied to.
Bolt’s faith is slightly pathetic, but it’s not unrelated to the ways that children (as well as pets) are regularly conditioned. Innocent and trusting, kids accept adults’ versions of their environment as truth — whether limited or limitless, hopeful or pessimistic. Just so, the delightfully naïve Bolt takes as truth what he’s told by the Director (Inside the Actor’s Studio host James Lipton), that Penny must be saved day after day. Out of Bolt’s earshot, the Director admits to the studio’s rep that the dog can only deliver a great performance if he “believes” his experience is real. Thus the elaborate efforts by special effects and camera crewmembers to sustain the narrative that he actually can leap, run, and super-bark his way out of daily catastrophes. When the studio rep Mindy (Kari Wahlgren) reports that this 100% success rate is becoming less effective for increasingly savvy and cynical kid viewers (who seek doubt and tension more than routine in their programming), the Director is pushed to rethink the formula.
But when Bolt is subjected to his first “cliffhanger” episode ending — he sees Penny kidnapped by the evil Dr, Calico (Malcolm McDowell) before he’s trundled off to his trailer for a night of sleepless panic — the result is disaster. On his first chance, the dog escapes, hoping to find and rescue his girl, as he has always done before. This leads to an even more terrible consequence — he’s dumped accidentally into a box full of Styrofoam packing peanuts and shipped from the L.A. soundstage to New York City. Emerging from the box, he believes his powers have been sapped by the Styrofoam but still, resolves to get back to Hollywood to rescue Penny.
So begins Bolt’s version of growing up, fast-tracked and colorful. Back in Hollywood, Penny is convinced to work with a substitute Bolt because doggy costars are interchangeable (“People are going to lose their jobs,” says Mindy, “The last thing we want you to do is ask a little girl to make a grown-up decisions, but we need you to let Bolt go”). At the same time, the “real” Bolt is riding trains and trucks and campers across country in order to make it back to the girl he really adores. He is helped along on his journey by a couple of sidekicks, the skeptical cat Mittens and the true believer TV show fan Rhino (Mark Walton), a rotund hamster who inhabits his own palpable fiction — one of those plastic balls that grants him faux mobility.
The film repeatedly highlights the back and forth between Mittens and Bolt. Well acquainted with the advantage dogs have over cats among humans (“Being a regular dog is like the greatest gig in the world”), she teaches him to “do the dog face,” that is, look sad and adorable so humans will give them food; when he insists that the lightning bolt on his side is his “mark of power,” she contends that it’s “the mark of a makeup artist”; and eventually she fesses up to trauma in her own past, as being abandoned by her “person” has led her to distrust all relationships. And so on.
The comedy and tragedy generated by these standard cat-and-dog tensions are less interesting than the meta-text embodied by the very chatty hamster. Convinced that Bolt is a real superhero, he insists that he will be a “valuable addition” to the team, believing that the mission to save Penny is crucial, because it is in every episode he’s seen on “the magic box.” Warned that the road ahead will be hard, Rhino asserts, “I eat danger for breakfast!” Confident and upbeat, Rhino is an adamant fanboy. Admiring Bolt as “someone who no matter what the odds will do what’s right,” he pushes him to go ahead and save Penny — again — even as the newly apparent real world argues against this happy ending. As the film connives to grant Bolt his own bit of heroism, Rhino is proved right, the consumer as ideal moral arbiter. It’s cute and heartening, but not a little disconcerting.