Cinematic Flashback: Balto (1995) Review
Oh, the shame of the polar bear who fears the water. No wonder we are shunned by our fellow bear. Woe is us. It’s what he said, rather pathetic really and a quote from 1995 animated film Balto and my latest “cinematic flashback” review.
“His story became a legend. His adventure is one you’ll never forget”
Director: Simon Wells
Writer: Cliff Ruby, Elana Lesser, David Steven Cohen, and Roger S.H. Schulman
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Bridget Fonda, Bob Hoskins, Jim Cummings, and Phil Collins
Run Time: 77 Minutes
Release Date: December 22nd, 1995
It’s 1925 in the small town of Nome, Alaska, and Balto, a half-wolf / half-husky dog, is an outcast amongst all, including his canine brethren. Living on the outskirts of town, Balto does find friendship with Jenna, a pure-bred female canine husky (of who the pair have a crush on each other), Boris, a Russian Goose, and Muk and Luk, a pair of polar bears. At the same time, the town of Nome is facing a diphtheria epidemic with 18 people of the townsfolk already fallen ill to the sickness. One person is a little girl named Rosy, who is Jenna’s owner, which causes Jenna (and Balto) to worry over the sickness in Nome. The town’s doctor sends for more diphtheria antitoxin, which Nome is out of; prompting a dog sled team be sent to Nenana to pick up the antitoxin. Unfortunately, the tragedy strikes on the way back to Nome, involving team’s human musher getting knocked out. Prompted into action, Balto and his friends venture into the wilderness, hoping to rescue the dog sled team and make it back to Nome (with the antitoxin) in time to save those who are ill. However, the journey provides to perilous, testing Balto’s strength and facing the important question of who he really is…. a dog or a wolf?
Oh, man…. I remember this movie. Still watch every now and again. I remember seeing the commercials for this film when I was younger, but I didn’t see it in theaters. My grandparents bought the VHS tape of it in 1996 and I remember watching. Loved it. Definitely was something special movie to me. I do remember laughing a lot at the film’s jokes and gags (and still do), which proved to comedic levity in a very serious / dramatic story. There were a few scary parts (one particular involving a bear) that I had nightmares a few times, so parents out there…. just a warning (even though the movie is rated G). What I’ve always found interesting about Balto is it was mostly animated, but also included live-action segments, which bookended the feature at the beginning and end. Of course, I remember hitting the “fast forward” button during the beginning portion when I was younger, but (later on) I found it to be quite interesting that an animated feature would have “live-action sequences”. It wasn’t unheard of, but it was something that was different from the norm.
What’s more interesting is that the simply fact that Balto is actually based on a true story. I really didn’t know that until much later on. To me, that’s quite interesting for a kid’s cartoon movie and really “hit me” in terms of likeability as I grew older. Of course (as to be expected), some of the real-life narratives bits and pieces have to be altered for the movie, but the essential journey of the dog sled team and the antitoxin remains true. What’s even more shocking (and a bit depressing) is what happens to the real dog sled after the film’s events unfold (search for it online). Also, it’s kind of cool that still run the dog sled race (i.e the Iritarod Sled Dog Race) to this day; the same route that Balto and the other sled dogs all those years ago.Additionally, the movie (at its core) speaks to a very important message of believing in yourself and being proud of who you are (and your heritage). Personally, I think that this a good thematic message for a kid’s film (and something I remember learning when I initially saw this movie when I was younger) and definitely still speaks volumes, especially in today’s world of individual identities or gender / race.
For it’s time, the animation used in the movie was suitable. It’s definitely colorful and provides a pleasant sense to watch (creating some good character designs for the various characters therein…be human, dog, or wilderness beast), but in comparison to Disney’s past released around the time of this movie (1994’s The Lion King and 1995’s Pocahontas), the movie’s animation seems a bit dated. Still, it holds up better than most. Plus, I do have to say the movie certainly has a few good / memorable moments (thanks in particular to Balto’s cinematographer Jan Richter-Friis) as well as film composer James Horner’s score for the feature. This particular noticeable in the climatic revelation moment that the feature present where Balto finally embraces his wolf heritage (Dang…that moment still gets me every time).
Much like what I said in my cinematic flashback for the 1994 animated film The Pagemaster, Balto was theatrical released at such peculiar moment / turning point movement for animated features. Naturally, I’m speaking about paradigm shift in styles of animated endeavors (from 2D to 3D) …most notably with the release of 1995’s Toy Story, which was first full-length computer animated feature from Pixar). Given the fact that Disney was behind Pixar and the overwhelming success that Toy Story had (to both critics and moviegoers) during its theatrical release, Balto, which was released roughly a month after Toy Story, was inevitable eclipsed. It made a modest sum at the box office, but it wasn’t large enough to make an impact. This, along with Disney’s “renaissance era” of animated features reaching its midway peak, proved that animated movies were beginning to change; beginning a somewhat “beginning of the end” for the more traditional 2D animation movies. Balto was just one such case, which showed that Disney (and soon Pixar) really controlled animated movies throughout most of the 90s, and how non-Disney cartoon motion pictures projects were starting to become a thing of the past.
In the end, Balto did find a strong cult following on its home video release, which did turn a profit for the feature. This prompted for the film to receive two DTV (Direct-to-Video) sequels with 2002’s Balto II: Wolf’s Quest and 2005’s Balto III: Wings of Change. Unfortunately, nether sequel received as mediocre endeavors. I remember seeing a few scenes from Wolf’s Quest and it was just felt like a hollow and cheap imitation of Balto. Didn’t even feel like it. As a side-note, Balto was the animated film released by Amblimation, an animation studio company run by Stephen Spielberg during the early 90s. With the company closing shortly after, most of the Amblimation staff was then relocated to the newly formed DreamWorks Animation, which was formed by Spielberg as well as David Geffen, and Jeffery Katzenburg.
The voice talents of this movie are pretty good, with several noticeable / recognizable actors and actresses lend their vocals to these cartoon characters. This includes talents like actors like Kevin Bacon, Bob Hoskins and actress Bridget Fonda as well as animated voiceover talent Jim Cummings and musician artist Phill Collins. When I first saw this movie, I really didn’t know that all these people were attached to this project. I think I first remember hearing about Kevin Bacon, who played the voice of Balto in the movie, but it wasn’t until later on that found out about the rest of the cast. Heck, I was even surprise that Phill Collins was in Balto, playing both the voices for the two polar bears (Muk and Luk). Collectively, these voice talents provided some good performances within these respective characters as well as the rest of the cast / characters in the movie.
In the end, Balto is a solid non-Disney animated movie from the mid90s. It may be overlooked by animated purist or those looking for a kid’s cartoon film endeavor (lacking the same palpable / colorful stance that Disney / Pixar set during its theatrical release), but Balto proves to be a wholesome amination venture with a “based on a true story” narrative, good voice talents, and enticing journey (from start to finish), and few great / memorable cinematography moments.
Cinematic Flashback 4.0 Out of 5
Fun Fact: Actor Brendan Fraser was originally hired to provide the voice of Steele, the evil dog. He did record his part, but his voice-over was subsequently discarded, and the role went to experienced voice actor Jim Cummings.