Balto (1995)

Back in my review for Roller Coaster Rabbit I called Steven Spielberg the “Forrest Gump of American Animation”. Pick any seminal development in the history of the medium over the past forty years or so and chances are Spielberg is involved somehow, showing LBJ his ass. But the problem with history is that a lot of it is really, really, really sad and few things ring a tear from my dusty old eye ducts like the collapse of traditional hand-drawn animation in the face of CGI like a proud old Mesomamerican Empire succumbing to hordes of plastic-faced, eyebrow-raised, pop culture spouting Spaniards. Perhaps the earliest death-knell of the hand-drawn animated feature was heard all the way back in 1995, ostensibly when the Disney Renaissance was still going strong. Balto, the third and (as it would prove to be) final film produced by Spielberg’s Amblimation studio was one of the biggest box office flops of the year, tanking so hard that Amblimation closed as an animation studio and now lives in quiet seclusion as a Self-Storage company based in Acton. Because, well, let’s just say 1995 was a bad year to be competing in the market of feature length animation.

You will know them by the trail of dead in their wake.

This was the first of many high profile examples of hand-drawn animation competing and failing against CGI movies which ultimately led to the near extinction of traditional hand-drawn feature animation, at least in America. But I think Balto’s failure can’t just be attributed to its unfortunate status as the first notch in CGI’s gun barrel. For starters, I know for a fact that I actively avoided this film. See, from the moment The Little Mermaid lit the touch paper, every studio in Hollywood had been trying to cash in on Disney’s success with their own Disney-esque movies. And I steered clear of them because Disney inculcates brand loyalty like a psychotic mother stroking her child’s hair and whispering “no one shall ever love you as I do, little one, least of all whatever whore you end up marrying”. In my defence though, most of the wannabe Disneys were god-awful and the more “Disney-like” they tried to be, the worse they tended to turn out. And Balto, even from a cursory look at the poster, wants to be Disney so, so hard it’s honestly a little sad. So I think that many people, like myself, had learned to distrust non-Disney movies that were clearly trying to be Disney movies. For as wise Mr Beaver once said: “if you meet anything that’s going to be Disney but isn’t yet, or used to be Disney once and isn’t now, or ought to be Disney but isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and get ready to leave a bad review on Rotten Tomatoes”.

As unexpected as the movie’s initial failure was its equally remarkable afterlife. Its home video sales were robust enough to spawn two sequels, meaning that there was definitely an audience for this film, just not one willing to go out in public to watch it. Which I find inexplicable.

“Oh Mouse. Sweet, innocent Mouse.”
“Ah. The furries. Got it.”

So after a live action sequence featuring Miriam Margoyles as an old lady bringing her granddaughter to see the Balto monument in Central Park, we transition to animation and oh my word, what animation!

If nothing else, Balto is a visual triumph. The backgrounds effectively capture the jaw-dropping soul-stirring beauty of the Great White North, the animation is fluid and bouncy and beautiful and the character designs…well, we’ll get to that. Anyway, we open on a race between two husky teams, one of them being led by Steele (Jim Cummings). Now Steele is revered in the town of Nome as the strongest, fastest sled dog around. No one pulls sleds like Steele. No one leads dogs like Steele. No one’s got a swell cleft in his muzzle like Steele. In Nome, everyone is waiting for the racers to cross the finish line except one dog, the stray half wolf Balto, played by Kevin Bacon in a performance that will leave you genuinely scratching your head as to why this guy doesn’t get more voicework.

Now, no-one in Nome likes Balto because he’s…I guess you could say he’s a tramp. He’s a scoundrel. Breaks a new heart everyday. Which brings us neatly to those character designs. Holy fuck Amblimation, you’re so brazen it’s kind of a turn on.

I could go on but every time I google image search these movies I see some shit, man, so let’s just leave it at that. The movie Balto reminds me more of than anything is Anastasia. The process is simple, take an episode of early 20th century history, deep fry it in Disney tropes until it’s completely unrecognisable and serve straight from the oven. Just as Anastasia was Don Bluth’s attempt to make a Disney Princess movie, Balto is trying to make its own Disney dog movie. There’s a little Fox and the Hound, a dollop of Oliver and Company, a soupcon of 101 Dalmatians and big meaty chunks of Lady and the Tramp. In the designs at least. In terms of plot, it’s trying to cram as much Disney renaissance in there as it can fit in its pockets.

So the whole town is waiting for the dog race to finish, including an adorable little girl name Rosy and her furry-bait collie Jenna. All the female dogs in Nome are crazy about Steele except Jenna, who’s not like the other bitches. Steele wins the race and all the ladies swoon.

Okay, okay, I’m done shooting fishing in a barrel. So Balto sees Jenna and is instantly smitten, and tries to impress her by rescuing Rosy’s hat when it gets blown into the path of the race. In the process, he actually outruns Steele, which puts him right on Steele’s shit-list. Steele and his posse ambush Balto in an alleyway and mock him for being a “half-breed”.

So, a little history. Balto was a Siberian husky and one of many dogs who took part in the famous 1925 Nome serum run, delivering much needed anti-toxin to Alaskan communities during a diptheria epidemic, braving freezing blizzards and hazardous terrain. He was not a half wolf and he didn’t have to deal with racism, I mean, as far as I’m aware at least. Also, another dog named Togo actually led the team over far greater distances but Balto had a better publicist, I guess. A last little tidbit, Balto’s subsequent fame is credited with kickstarting the inoculation campaign that eventually all but eradicated diptheria in North America. So I guess what I’m saying is, if we want to end this pandemic before the Omega Variant kills us all, maybe start training a bunch of cute, photogenic labradors to administer Covid vaccines.

Miserable and dejected, Balto returns to his home on an abandoned boat, feeling sorry for himself.

“Riff raff. Street rat. I don’t buy that.”

Okay, now I’m done.

Later that night, Balto comes across Jenna waiting anxiously outside the doctor’s clinic where Rosy is being examined for a mysterious cough.

*Cough cough*
“Spirit! Tell me she shall live!”

Balto shows Jenna how to sneak into the clinic (and, sidebar, if a prospective boyfriend knows how to break into the local drug dispensary he is almost certainly marriage material) and Jenna and Balto overhear the doctor saying that Rosy has diptheria, also known as the “Aw Shit” Disease, and that he’s all out of anti-toxin because all the children in town are sick with it.

Well, like all dogs, Jenna and Balto know that without a course of Erythromycin or Benzylpenicillin diptheria can become fatal in as little as two weeks and Jenna is distraught, despite Balto’s attempts to console her.

“Well, the disease only has a 5-10% fatality rate…”
“Dammit Balto! She’s immunocompromised, she doesn’t have anything close to those odds!”

Steele shows up with a length of sausages and invites Jenna to re-enact the spaghetti scene from Lady and the Tramp but with more of a rapey vibe and she pulls the old “pretending to be attracted to the villain in order to manouver him next to a furnace and set him on fire” gambit.

“And your fur is sooo…twisted.”

Okay, THAT was the last one.

The next day, the town holds a race to find the fastest sled dogs to go get the anti-toxin and bring it back to Nome. Balto, realising that if he saves Rosy’s life Jenna will, y’know, pretty much have to that would be a very noble thing to do, enters the race and wins. But the musher refuses to use him because he’s just a random half wolf stray who’s never pulled a sleigh before, isn’t socialised to humans and also just because he’s fast doesn’t mean he’s got the discipline, stamina or strength to be part of a sled team, particularly relevant for a mission where the price of failure is dozens of dead children. The movie makes it out that the musher is being an asshole. The musher is not being an asshole.

The sled team sets out with Steele leading them, but when they get the serum they end up stranded at the foot of a mountain by a blizzard. Word reaches Nome, and the movie shows us Balto’s decision to go and find the missing sled team with a very effective, almost wordless piece of story-telling, where Balto wanders past the carpenter’s shop (who we saw building toy sleds at the start of the movie) and see him sadly building a row of tiny coffins. Major inflection point for our main character. Zero dialogue needed. It’s all done with the visuals and James Horner’s excellent score. That is just damn good film-making right there.

Now one thing I haven’t mentioned is that this movie has character bloat that makes Raya and the Last Dragon look like Not I. Every major character in this thing comes with a posse of between 2 or 3 supporting characters. Steele’s got his three dog lackeys, Jenna has her girl dog pals, Balto lives with a russian goose voiced by Bob Hoskins and a pair of polar bears voiced by Phil Collins (!). Is Phil Collins on the soundtrack? No, he bloody isn’t! Someone just said “hey, let’s get Phil Collins to voice the polar bears” and no one said “Phil Collins isn’t an actor, why, why would you even…what?!”. I mean, Phil Collins is actually perfectly decent in the role, it’s just…why any of this? Why the polar bears? Why Phil Collins? WHY?! But you know what? This doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it normally does. Because, as superflous as all these characters are…

It’s appealingly designed cartoon characters rendered in beautiful handrawn animation and that is a good thing to have in the world. I miss it and I need it and I am more than willing to give this movie a pass on some narrative profligacy because dammit, it made me happy.

Anyway, Balto, Jenna and a metric fuck ton of supporting characters sally forth to bring the sled team home. They’re attacked by a bear…

Ah, going for a deep cut. Nice.

…and Jenna is injured so she heads back with the other supporting characters and Balto forges on alone, with Jenna giving him her red bandana for good luck. Balto finally finds the stranded team, with the musher frozen to death, but Steele refuses to accept his help. Balto refuses to fight Steele, just wanting to bring the medicine back to Nome, but the other dog lunges at him fighting and falls off a cliff. The other dogs, impressed by Balto’s courage and decency, accept him as their new leader and he harnesses himself to the sled…somehow, and they ride off. But Steele isn’t dead, and decides to sabotage their journey by destroying all the markers Balto left to lead him back home.

Back in Nome, Steele tells Jenna and the other dogs that Balto and the entire team is dead but that Balto’s last words were that she and Steele should totally bang. All the other dogs are all “oh Steele is such a hero, Jenna should totally bang him” and Jenna is all “that was clearly a lie, and there shall be no banging tonight, thank you sir.”

Meanwhile, in the wilderness, Balto is slowly freezing to death but then he sees a vision of a white wolf who makes him realise that, actually, being half wolf is kinda badass when you think about it. Balto leads the rest of the team home, Steele is ostracised, Rosy and the other children are saved, Balto and Jenna presumably bang and a million Deviant Art accounts are born.

***

It’s shameless, I tell you! Shameless! But…you know what? There’s worse things in this life than listening to a talented cover band playing your favourite songs. Yeah, it’s a utterly brazen aping of some of Disney’s most popular canon movies, but I loved those movies (a hell of a lot more than what they’ve doing with the canon recently, I’ll tell you that much) and this at least is being done by a particularly skilled and crafty ape.

Scoring

Animation: 18/20

Beautiful, old school animation just like-a Mamma Disney used to make.

Leads 16/20

Certainly not inventing the wheel, but fine, well made wheels to be sure.

Villain: 13/20

Look, I love me some Jim Cummings but his voice is more suited to blustering assholes than outright villains and Steele didn’t quite grab me.

Supporting Characters: 10/20

Too. Damn. Many.

Music: 18/20

Excellent score from the ever reliable James Horner.

FINAL SCORE: 75%

NEXT UPDATE: I’ll be doing my usual end of year summing up around Christmas and I’ll hopefully have some exciting news to announce but the next review will be 14 January 2022.

NEXT TIME:

Wait. Where’s Superman?

26 comments

  1. I recall enjoying this movie whenever I saw it, even after learning about the Togo/Balto thing. Otherwise, I’ve no strong feelings one way or the other. Great review as usual.

  2. I never really had any big feelings toward this movie, positive or negative – which is kind of a shame because Balto is a bit of a celebrity in my neck of the woods.

    After the events of the movie, since he couldn’t be bred (he’s fixed – awkward conversation with Jenna incoming), he went on the vaudeville circuit and then to a novelty museum in LA. But when a prizefighter from Cleveland saw haw badly he and the other dogs were being treated, he started a campaign to buy them and get them some better digs. They lived out the rest of their days in what is now the Cleveland Zoo.

    After he died in 1933, Balto’s remains were taxidermied and put on display in the Cleveland Natural Hstory Museum, where they remain to this day.

    Last time I was there, I snapped a pic:

  3. “So I guess what I’m saying is, if we want to end this pandemic before the Omega Variant kills us all, maybe start training a bunch of cute, photogenic labradors to administer Covid vaccines.”

    We tried that Mouse, but suddenly labradors are political and dogs are just a conspiracy created by Big Pharma and God, I hate anti-vaxxers.

  4. This is one of those movies I have only seen the Nostalgia Critics review of but I wonder if I should be a good animation fan and try to watch.

    “(a hell of a lot more than what they’ve doing with the canon recently, I’ll tell you that much)” I hope you haven’t seen Encanto yet and including it, I haven’t seen it yet and hopefully it’s good.

    Somehow I assumed the Metropolis in your list was the 1927 classic lol.

      1. I loved Encanto. I also cried 3 times as some of the beats hit a weeeeee bit close to home.

  5. I’m pretty sure I saw this movie as a kid, but didn’t remember a thing about it. But I watched it about 5 years ago and it was really good, surprisingly. But I never noticed all those Disney “references” the movie had, lol.

  6. Mouse, I think we can safely say that dear old Phil Collins wasn’t cast in BALTO – he just showed up at the recording sessions and let his backup drum up support for Phil playing a role in the film.

    Since this backup was a Silverback gorilla, work got drummed up pretty **** quick.

    (I’m not saying this was all part of Phil Collin’s long-term scheme to get his very own Disney Movie with Bears, but BROTHER BEAR is a thing that exists … and apparently plays out in almost exactly the same part of the world as Balto, give or take an Ice Age).

    1. AC, “Shooting fish in a barrel” is a metaphor and elderly cliche intended to indicate when taking shots at somebody is just TOO easy (For example, when throwing insults at Donald Trump for being a crook or mocking a cat for being ‘too feline’).

      I’m not sure where or how the metaphor first came into use, but given that fish in a barrel have nowhere to swim and nowhere to hide, the imagery is reasonably vivid).

  7. Psst, Mouse – NO WAY HOME is a grand piece of entertainment (Much hugging, much learning, much to love): Watch it if you can.

  8. Actually, it is not uncommon that a movie does better in home video sales than box office sales.
    So I don’t know if furries are the only reason why this happened to “Balto”.

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