Bolt finally settles into an old-fashioned tale of a hero and his sidekicks—here, an emaciated, mouthy female alley cat and an obese, celebrity-worshipping hamster in a clear-plastic exercise ball—on a cross-country journey, with a climax that would comfortably fit into Lassie. But the central question is up to the minute: Will Bolt find out he’s an ordinary (talking) dog and survive that knowledge and discover his essential dogginess? It’s a fascinating trend: state-of-the-art Hollywood fantasies pegged to the notion that state-of-the-art Hollywood fantasies are our chief impediment to being “real.”
I could cavil about the abundance of Hollywood in-jokes (pigeons who are hustling screenwriters) and the cat’s heavy-handed one-liners (“Listen, Cujo … ”). But as Bolt, John Travolta is inspired: His voice still cracks like an adolescent’s, and he has the perfect dopey innocence. Susie Essman gives the cat’s reflexive bitchiness some depth (she’s a hurtin’ hellion), and I have to admit that until I heard Miley Cyrus’s Penny, I underestimated the throaty expressiveness of her voice. Mark Walton (an actual cartoon-voice guy and not a marquee name!) makes the fat hamster (who might have been an irritant) sing. In theaters equipped to show the film in 3-D, your tickets come with glasses, through which the animals look even more huggable.
The gifted cinematographer Ellen Kuras spent decades tracking the Phrasavaths, a large Laotian family that fled the devastated country after the secret U.S. war, after the father was imprisoned for advising Americans on where to drop thousands of bombs. The Betrayal moves among time periods and countries, from the Laotian countryside to the alien dangerous tenements of Brooklyn. The damage to the family seems too deep to heal, yet the film is lyrical, expansive, unbearably beautiful, with a melting violin score by Howard Shore. The bitterness has an epic scale—bottomless, borderless, universal.