Bolt is no ordinary dog.
He’s been pumped up with super science to be so strong that he can head butt a speeding vehicle or bash a concrete wall and always come out on top. He’s faster than the Flash, shoots laser beams from his eyes and when he plants his feet and lets loose with a superbark, well, bad guys tumble like fall leaves in a brisk wind.
But Bolt is also quite common.
That’s because this caped canine is only a TV character. Not that the real dog who plays him knows that! Every day as he protects his beloved human, Penny, and blasts baddies with movie set perfection, Bolt is totally convinced that all those powers are his. And that’s exactly what the show’s director wants him to think. Because if Bolt believes, the show’s millions of viewers will believe, too.
Then one day Bolt slips out of his trailer and is accidentally packed up and shipped off the set. And things start going crazy. Well, crazier than normal, at least. For some reason that Bolt can’t quite fathom, his superpowers aren’t working properly in the outside world. Hmmm, he thinks, it must be because of a nefarious element called a “Styrofoam peanut.” It’s Bolt’s kryptonite. Everyone knows that!
But no matter. With the help of a streetwise alley cat and a sidekick hamster in a plastic ball, Bolt will find Penny once more. And he will save the day.
As misguided as Bolt is, at the heart of things his greatest desire is to protect his Penny. He travels half the country, refusing to stop searching for her. And even when he realizes that he can be injured in the outside world, he still puts everything on the line. Eventually the loyal dog goes so far as to risk his life in a crisis to stay by his master, and he uses his last ounce of strength to give her aid.
For Penny’s part, she loves her pet just as fiercely as he loves her. She hates the fact that Bolt must be left on the set. More than anything, Penny would like to take Bolt home and let him play like a regular dog.
Abandoned cat Mittens, on the other hand, would just as soon be rid of the bothersome dog. But with time she comes to realize that Bolt and the hamster oddball, Rhino, fill a longing she has for a family. Rhino tells Mittens, “If Bolt’s taught me anything, it’s that you never abandon a friend in time of need. Whether they ask for your help or not, you go.” Rhino also wants to be a hero like Bolt, someone who “does the right thing, no matter what the odds.”
Though not spiritual per se, Bolt is totally convinced that there is an ongoing battle between good and evil. He says to a cat villain, “You have chosen to follow the path of evil and it will ultimately destroy you.”
The opening scenes of Bolt are from his TV show. And via the magic of a soundstage, the superpowered woofer throws himself headlong into high gear and high octane (animated) action. Boom-bang-pow violence surrounds Penny and her heroic pet as they’re pursued by black-clad evildoers with claw-like, electrified gloves. Bad guys crash to the ground or are blown up by exploding vehicles during the chase. Laser beams threaten our daring duo. And Bolt blasts back with his eyes.
Bolt runs headfirst into a speeding car’s bumper and sends the vehicle cartwheeling into the air. And for the show’s grand finale, his atom bomb superbark leaves an army of men and heavily armored vehicles strewn about like so many crumpled candy wrappers.
There is some non-superpower action, too, as Bolt and his friends chase Penny and her evil captor. Jumping onto moving trains and out of speeding trucks, however, is nowhere near as intense as the TV show action. And there’s a lesson built into it, too. After leaping off a moving vehicle, Bolt looks down at his injured paw (commenting about the “red stuff” that he sees there) and comes to realize that without superpowers this kind of activity can be dangerous.
Slapstick violence—much of it revolving around dogcatchers—includes Rhino’s ball-cage being spit out of a big dog’s mouth and hitting someone in the forehead. Pepper spray accidentally gets shot into eyes. An electric sign crashes down on a truck. And we see Bolt running headlong into windows and fences. (He thinks he can smash right through them.)
[Spoiler Warning] A fire breaks out in a studio and Penny is trapped. Bolt finds his way in and tries to help her but the flames and smoke are overpowering. It appears that the two will perish. On the TV show, Penny’s dad is kidnapped. He’s never hurt and the scene is brief, but he’s shown tied to a chair.
At worst, “oh snap,” “stupid” and “gosh.” When a dogcatcher’s truck is demolished, she exclaims, “Sweet Sister Francis!”
When Penny’s TV dad tells her that he used science to enhance Bolt’s abilities, we see the dog in a lab filled with lasers and chemicals.
Bolt discovers—to his horror—that ordinary dogs have a habit of sniffing each other in inappropriate places. Mittens teaches Bolt even more about what it’s like to be one of those dogs by showing him a toilet and telling him that dogs drink from it. Mittens also runs a “protection racket” over pigeons who give her a tribute of half their weekly food scavenge. A bad guy threatens to “spill” Dad’s guts.
Penny’s smarmy agent is always about publicity and financial gain, no matter what the circumstance. He says he would trade his own daughter in for someone like Penny.
“Pixar masterpieces aside,” writes Phil Villarreal for the Arizona Daily Star, “it’s been quite a while since Disney cranked out an animated movie worthy of its fairy-dust-sprinkled castle logo.”
He’s exactly right. Disney is on a roll these days with both animated and live-action kid-friendly flicks that bound off the screen and are proving to be a lot of fun for everyone. Maybe that’s because Pixar’s John Lasseter is now firmly embedded in the Disney process. Maybe it’s because Disney Channel has had so much success with its High School Musical franchise. I don’t really care. I’m just happy to see it happen—even if it involves enough dogs to make Cruella De Vil run screaming for her scissors. (Disney only left a month and a half gap between Bolt and Beverly Hills Chihuahua.)
Whiz-bang action and light-up-the-sky explosions in Bolt are reminiscent of The Incredibles—without being quite so deadly feeling. And when Penny’s dad is kidnapped or Bolt and Penny are caught in a burning building, a few of the theater’s youngest occupants might require a comforting arm or a mother’s hand over their eyes, but this is unquestionably a top-notch family treat.
Bolt and his brethren teach us about being heroic even when we don’t have muscles of steel or laser beam eyes. They demonstrate self-sacrificial friendship in the face of growl-worthy odds. And they share a tail-wagging need for a loving family, no matter how flea-bitten it may be.
And so, here’s my very own superpowered, laser beam deflecting, monster-bark summary: Bolt is lightning in a family-size bottle.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.