Thursday, February 13, 2014

40. Balto (1995)

Code-name: Half-breed hero

Director: Simon Wells
Type: animated, based on a true story, nostalgia, dogs, wolves
Music: James Horner

Balto- Kevin Bacon
Boris- Bob Hoskins
Jenna- Bridget Fonda
Rosy- Juliette Brewer
Steele- Jim Cummings
Muk & Luk- Phil Collins
Dixie & Sylvia- Sandra Dickinson
Nikki- Jack Angel
Kaltag- Danny Mann
Starr- Robbie Rist
[Live Action]
Grandma- Miriam Margolyes
Granddaughter- Lola Bates-Campbell


[Nostalgia Trip]

With the exception of two animated movies (one Universal, one Disney) in my top 10-15, it doesn't get much more nostalgic than this for me.
I don't know what drew me to this particular movie when I was a kid... other than the fact it was animated and dogs were the main characters. Then again, animals are notoriously big draws for young audiences.

That being said, it holds up extremely well. Bits and pieces get me teary-eyed because watching it brings me so much joy. And as far as animation goes, Universal Studios will always be a personal favorite of mine. Disney is number one by default, but Universal... it always has great animation, great storytelling and every age group can get something.

In this case, we don't just get dogs and wolves. We get a bit of a history lesson as well.
Personally, I got a love of wolves out of this. Astrology may place me as a Leo born in the year of the Tiger, but wolves are my favorite animal... although white tigers will occasionally challenge the number one position.
I got a stuffed wolf for Christmas one year and he's still wearing that bandana somewhere in my closet, alongside maybe 2-3 other stuffed wolves I've gotten over the years. There was even a time where I was gifted with a wolf in the wild I could sponsor. Hinton (rather a photo of him) assisted me in an oral report I gave in 7th grade English, but after that, I lost track... I guess because you need to keep giving money to maintain said sponsorship. That same year, I also did a book report on the junior novelization based on a movie. A good break from that string of Animorphs books I did the year before, but it was kinda cheating :-P

Other than that, I wrote a novel about a teenage girl making a new life for herself in Alaska with her estranged mom after her dad died. It featured her participating in a dog sled race with her new boyfriend where they planned to use the winnings to save an old dog sled shop in town. It also had sporadic sightings of a wolf that I attempted (not sure how well I did this) to write up as containing the spirit of her dad looking out for her in the Alaskan wilderness in times of hardship.

And Balto and Jenna were among the several animated characters I sketched on the back on my elementary school test papers :-P

As much as I love the look of Siberian huskies and the notion of having one that has wolf in him, I doubt that'll ever happen. In general, huskies are very active breeds that require a lot of exercise and a strong hand with early training. We wouldn't be a good match.
I got to know a husky named Buddy at our local no-kill shelter. It took a few extra seconds to get control of him the first time, but we got on great. After that, each walk was a little more difficult. Mainly because they were after he'd been adopted and brought back because the people weren't a good match for him. Hopefully this latest adoption works out in the long run.

[Based on a True Story]

A book in my elementary school library about Siberian Huskies had some insight into the story this movie was based on.
There was a Diphtheria epidemic in Nome, Alaska in 1925. With blizzard conditions, transportation of serum by air and sea were impossible. So the only solution was shipping it by train from Anchorage to the nearest railroad stop. From there, a relay of sled dogs would take it to Nome. There were 20 teams, supposedly, and Balto was the lead dog on the final lap. Unlike in the movie, Balto was a purebred Siberian Husky, but according to the trivia I just read, he was dismissed as "just a freight dog." But the movie did take one important fact into account when they wrote their version: Balto followed the scent to the right of a fork in the trail... supposedly, if they went left, they would have fell through ice and died.

IMDB also has some true about what happened to the sled team. They ran the media circuit for a while, got passed to a couple different owners and even got to a point where they were mistreated and neglected. Luckily, a Cleveland businessman named George Kimball that raised money to save them. Then in 1933, it goes on to say that a veterinarian offered to take in an ailing Balto free of charge and cared for him for the remaining hours of his life.
And apparently, he was stuffed, mounted and is still on display in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

(Getting some of these post-1925 facts for the first time... it's amazing how some people can be so cruel and some other people can be so amazing... this is also the first time I've gotten to see what he really looks like, outside some black & white pictures from the book)

He looks nothing like the animated version :-P but I could care less... man, if I saw this in person, I might be tempted to fall to my knees...

As seen in the film, there's also a statue of him in Central Park... which I would love the chance to see once in my life.

[Cast and Crew]

Before the actors themselves, I need to take a moment to give props to James Horner. His music on this picture is just as much a part of it as the animation and voices. It brings the Alaskan terrain to life. It carries us through the drama of those "hold your breath" scenes where our hero(es) are in peril. Like the strokes of a paintbrush, it adds such beauty that the scenes where Balto and Jenna create the Northern Lights from broken bottles and Balto comes face to face with the white wolf... they just wouldn't carry the same emotional weight for me.
He also co-wrote "Reach for the Light," the song sung by Steve Winwood that plays in the ending credits.

Now onto the actors.
Everyone knows that celebrity game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. This was the first time I heard about him and he does amazing voiceover work for Balto. His husky voice is perfect for this role... which is fitting cuz he's playing a husky who's part wolf :-P
Usually when I like an actor's voiceover work, I try to see as many of their movies as I can. With Kevin Bacon, I can't explain why I haven't followed through. I'd only seen him in "Footloose" (it was YEARS ago and was freaking depressing) and "Tremors" (again, vaguely remember it)... and I don't plan on seeing "The Following" because thrillers aren't my cup of tea. One of these days, I'll check into more of his work to see if I like his acting as much as his voice.

Bob Hoskins, I knew as the dude from "Who Framed Rodger Rabbit?" but since he plays a goose with a Russian accent, it's hard to make the connection.
Bridget Fonda, I'd only seen in "Lake Placid"... that was also years ago, so to me, she's still Jenna, a gorgeous red-headed (in dog speak, her coloring is "copper") husky.

Then there's our old friend, Jim Cummings... finding yet another convincing villain in Steele. Not just because he wants to be the town hero for glory alone, but as a rival for Jenna's affection. What a despicable character.
His sled team lackeys aren't much better. Except for maybe Starr, who's basically the comic relief of the team. In half a dozen scenes, Nikki and Kaltag try to find the right adjective for a dog or a situation and Starr gets punched for adding something they deem idiotic. (Fun fact: his voice actor, Robbie Rist also played Michelangelo in the original "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles")

In Balto's crew, the comic relief are Boris's "adopted" nephews, Muk & Luk, hydrophobic polar bears who believe they don't know how to swim until they come through for him in a desperate situation. In clich├ęd fashion, Muk is the shorter and smarter of the two and Luk is the taller one incapable of speech, expressing himself in grunts and whimpers only Muk can understand.  Both are played by Phil Collins, taking some time away from his musical career for something decidedly different.

As for our live action actors, this was Lola Bates-Campbell's only credit, but Miriam Margolyes is one of those older actresses that gives me that warm and fuzzy feeling... you feel like you're home when she's on screen because she plays a lot of wonderful, maternal characters.
Oddly enough, one of her most memorable parts for me is a voiceover, the border collie, Fly from "Babe". I used to confuse her a lot with Brenda Fricker, who I remember from "Angels in the Outfield" and "Home Alone 2."
She also played Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter series.

[Additional Comments]
!Spoilers ahead!

Going beyond the fact this is an animal-centric film, it has a lot of great things going for it. It deals with the difficult theme of outcasts, not knowing where you belong in the world. The plot is propelled by emotion.
Balto doesn't just want to help Rosy, one of many children sick under the epidemic, because he wants to impress her dog, Jenna. He's not in it for the glory and notoriety the way Steele is. He thinks about helping her and the other children above all else. And the ending pay-off is huge because everyone gets exactly what they deserve based on their motives. Steele is outcast from dog society... for abandoning his team and also LYING about what happened to them. His "story" was that the team was gone, he was trying to help Balto, but he and the medicine fell down a cliff. Only Jenna saw through the lie and soon enough, everyone else would learn the truth. Steele was nothing but a coward :-P You know it's huge when even Dixie, Jenna's best friend and Steele's #1 fangirl, turns her back on him.

It's also a nice moment when Rosy's father, who shooed Balto away in every scene they had together, lets him into the hospital to see her after she's recovered. At last, his town has decided to accept him as a part of it

Even Starr gets a pay-off at the end. He proclaims, amid Nikki and Kaltag arguing, "they should build a statue of him!" and Kaltag agrees: "you said it." 8-)


I wasn't aware of this, but this movie's theatrical release was downplayed because "Toy Story," the first full-length CGI animated film, was getting all the press. Even sadder, this was the last film released by Spielberg's animated company, Amblimation. The studio went away after Spielberg co-founded... wait for it... DreamWorks Studios with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. But thanks to a little something called VHS, it became regarded as a classic and led to two sequels.

Unfortunately, neither lived up to the original. Things are already off to a bad start when they don't even bring the original cast back.
Maurice LaMarche is like Jim Cummings, great for a wide number of voiceovers, but he just isn't Kevin Bacon.

First sequel centers around Balto's relationship with his daughter, Aleu, the only one of his puppies with Jenna that wasn't adopted... supposedly because she has the look of a wolf. Ultimately, she ends up finding a home with a wolf pack after a journey fraught with peril and bits of Inuit mythology. It's well-done, yes, but it doesn't have the soul of the original.

The second, subtitled "Wings of Change" involves the introduction of airplanes as the preferred method of mail transport. Balto befriends the pilot of the new plane, intrigued by the idea of flying, but this innovation might come at the expanse of the sled team, led by one of Balto's sons. It only saw this one once. Neither one stands to the original, but both of them have their pluses and minues. One minus they share is that they include one too many unnecessary musical numbers.

[Coming Next Week]

A rom-com featuring one of my favorite actresses and a grossly overrated comedic actor in one of his best roles.

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