May I gush? "Bolt" is a jolt of joy, a computer-animated delight that is delirious with laughs. It's also canny enough to know that perilous suspense and even sad moments have a place in any good children's story.

This Disney feature, executive-produced by Pixar genius John Lasseter, has all the hallmarks of his earlier classics: adorable characters, clever humor, thrilling action and heartfelt emotion. It's the best Disney film since the glory days of "Beauty and the Beast," and the first 3-D production I've seen that will have kids and grownups alike misting up their stereoscopic shades.

The film's premise has already been revealed in the studio's publicity campaign, but it's so cleverly presented onscreen that it would be a shame to spoil the surprise for those who have missed it.

The bare bones are that Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is a gallant, lovable dog who is separated from his 12-year-old human, Penny (Disney pop princess Miley Cyrus) and travels cross-country to rejoin her, accompanied by a cynical cat, Mittens (Susie Essman), and Rhino, a hyper-enthusiastic hamster (Mark Walton) in a plastic rolling ball. The pampered pooch learns important lessons about love, humility and faith along the way.

If you're unaware of the story's big surprise, please stop reading now, go see the movie and come back to the rest of this review afterward. You'll thank me. Go on, now.

Welcome back. Wasn't that a treat? "Bolt" is a normal dog who has been raised on the set of a TV action series. Each week he and Penny battle the evil legions of Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell), who inevitably crumble before Bolt's genetically engineered super strength, heat vision and sonic-boom bark. This setup kicks off the story with a stupendously exciting pursuit scene that's far wittier and more engrossing than the visually dyslexic action scenes in the new Bond movie.

What Bolt doesn't realize is that his adventures are an elaborate special-effects charade. He's filmed in secret by a realism-freak director (James Lipton) convinced that Bolt will be believable in his heroic role only if he believes the fantasy himself. Penny would love to bring the dog home with her for a nice, normal weekend of chase-the-stick, but her Hollywood employers won't hear of it.

Bolt, convinced that the show's fictional villains have Penny in their clutches, slips out of his cage and into the first real adventure of his life. Shipped to New York, he gets a taste of life on the mean streets, without the superpowers he has always relied on to get him out of a jam.

The warm heart of "Bolt" is a coming-of-age story. The trip west is a wonderfully silly adventure as Bolt deals with the regret of shedding his illusions, but learns that just as himself he's capable of heroic deeds. The dog's expressions are heart-rending as well as hilarious, and Travolta's vocal performance is utterly winning.

A word about the animation. Disney reportedly developed new CGI techniques specifically for this film. I believe it. There are episodes along the animals' trek and in the end credits that employ 3D effects unlike anything I've seen, creating stylized, artistic images far removed from photorealism. Some look hand-painted, while others resemble paper cut-outs.

Best of all, the animators don't overuse their new capabilities. There's a great throwaway gag near the finale that spoofs "Beowulf" and other 3D films that poke sharp objects at viewers in hopes of making us duck. "Bolt" has the confidence to use its magical effects sparingly, never as a substitute for imagination and vitality. What could have been a passable kiddie sedative is instead something lively and memorable. Lassie would be proud. 

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186