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It was no trouble getting in character to voice the lead dog in Disney’s new animated movie, says John Travolta. “Fortunately, I’m already in touch with my inner dog,” he told reporters at the press day for Bolt, which opens November 21.

But Bolt is not just any dog. He’s a Hollywood mogul mongrel. There is an action-packed TV show within the movie and Bolt is an actor who performs in it, along with human child actor Penny (voiced by Miley Cyrus).  His character in the TV show is a superdog, able to do delightfully impossible stunts like dangle cars over rivers or shoot lasers out of his eyes. Everyone on set knows that it’s all smoke and mirrors. Except Bolt.  For him, the powers, the bad guys, and the driving need to protect Penny, are deadly real.

Life in the Real World

An accident releases Bolt into the real world, on the other side of the continent from Penny. Fully believing in his own powers and a dastardly cat conspiracy to hurt Penny, he abducts a hard-bitten alley cat Mittens (voiced by Susie Essman). The duo meets a TV-addict Hamster Rhino (voiced by Mark Walton), who is also convinced Bolt is a superdog and “fully awesome.”  This unlikely trio starts off on a trip back to Penny and Hollywood.  Along the way, the movie offers spot-on send-ups of everything from RV grannies to Hollywood agents.  The movie is not just laugh out loud, it’s choke-on-your-popcorn funny.  As a bonus, it manages to be clever and funny without any of those wink-wink jokes that can make a family trip to the movies a risky proposition.

One of the truly great characters is Rhino the mighty hamster.  The valiant rodent confidently crosses the country in a hamster ball with optimism as big as he is tiny.  Fully delusional that the Bolt TV show is real, Rhino lives only to aid in Bolt’s quest. He thinks nothing of intimidating a cat or attacking a human.  “As some people have said, it might have been a little bit of typecasting,” explained Walton, “It wasn’t a whole lot of reaching or effort for me to get into the excitable nerd fanboy geek.”  An employee at the animation studio, he originally filled the part while they tried to cast a real actor for Rhino.  But his work was so perfect that they gave the part to him.  When told, he danced around, knocked over furniture, and screamed like the fanboy he is.  Which is exactly what we imagine Rhino the hamster would do as well.

You Gotta Have Friends

The emotion of the story, however, comes from the development of a deep friendship between Mittens and Bolt.  Sworn enemies when they meet, they teach each other about loyalty, compassion, and reality. “  Once I find out he’s not really crazy, but he’s been treated poorly, then I develop this incredible compassion for him and the friendship starts to evolve,” said Essman of her character, “What Mittens learns from Bolt is all about friendship , trust and loyalty. He’s the most loyal, trusting friend.”  Taking a cynical cat who has survived the mean streets of New York and helping her learn to trust again is no small feat. The movie treats Mittens with tender paws in the midst of all the zaniness.  “Even in spite of everything, [Bolt] wants to get back to Penny, even when he knows he’s not a superdog and he knows she’s lied to him in a certain way, he is loyal to his person,” said Essman, “And the cynic that I am, I learn from him.  I learn to trust him and to become a loving, trusting kitten again.”