ⓘ Balto (film)

Balto (film)

ⓘ Balto (film)

Balto is a 1995 American live-action/animated adventure film directed by Simon Wells, produced by Amblin Entertainment and distributed by Universal Pictures. The film is loosely based on a true story about the dog of the same name who helped save children infected by the diphtheria epidemic in the 1925 serum run to Nome. The film stars Kevin Bacon, Bridget Fonda, Jim Cummings, Phil Collins and Bob Hoskins, with Miriam Margolyes in the live-action sequences. The live-action portions of the film were shot in New York Citys Central Park.

The film was the third and final animated feature produced by Steven Spielbergs UK-based Amblimation animation studio. Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy and Bonne Radford acted as executive producers on the film. Although the film was a financial disappointment it was overshadowed by the success of the competing Disney-Pixar film Toy Story its subsequent strong sales on home video led to two direct-to-video sequels: Balto II: Wolf Quest 2002 and Balto III: Wings of Change 2004, though none of the voice cast reprised their roles. Unlike the original film, the sequels were entirely animated and contain no live action scenes.


1. Plot

The films prologue is set in New York City in the Fall of 1995. An elderly woman Miriam Margolyes, her granddaughter Lola Bates-Campbell and her granddaughters Siberian Husky, Blaze, are walking through Central Park, looking for a memorial statue. As they seat themselves for a rest, the woman tells her granddaughter a story of the 1925 serum run to Nome, shifting the film from live-action to animation.

The story goes back to the winter of 1925 in Nome, Alaska. Balto Kevin Bacon, a young and lonely wolfdog, lives in an abandoned ship on the outskirts of Nome with his adoptive father, a Russian snow goose named Boris Bob Hoskins and two polar bears, Muk and Luk Phil Collins. Being half-wolf, Balto is shunned by dogs and the townspeople alike. His only friends in town are a red husky named Jenna Bridget Fonda and her owner, Rosy Juliette Brewer. He is constantly bullied by champion sled dog, Steele Jim Cummings, a fierce and arrogant Alaskan Malamute with whom he competes for Jennas attention.

The evening after the annual dog race, 18 children, including Rosy, fall ill with diphtheria, and Curtis Welch, the towns only doctor, is out of antitoxin. The towns telegrapher Garrick Hagon relays an urgent telegram to Juneau, where the territory governor orders a large box of antitoxin to be sent to Nome. However, severe winter weather conditions prevent medicine from being brought by sea or air and the closest Alaska Railroad line from Juneau ends at Nenana, over 600 miles east of Nome. Two days later, a dog race is held to determine the best-fit dogs for a sled dog team to get the medicine. Balto enters and wins, but is rejected by the musher after Steele stomps on Baltos paw to induce a growl from him.

The team departs that night with Steele in the lead and successfully picks up the medicine from the Nenana Depot, but on the way back, they forget which way they came and end up stranded at the base of a steep mountainside slope, disoriented, with their musher knocked unconscious. The next day, when word reaches Nome that the sled team is off the trail, the town prepares for the worst. Balto, wanting to help Rosy get better, sets out in search of the team, along with Boris, Muk and Luk. On the way, they are ambushed by a giant grizzly bear, but Jenna, who followed their mark tracks, intervenes. The bear pursues Balto out onto a frozen lake, where it falls through the ice and drowns, while Muk and Luk dive in to save Balto from a similar fate. Jenna is injured while fighting the bear and cannot continue, so Balto instructs Boris and the polar bears to take her back home while he continues on alone. Jenna gives Balto her bandanna to wear, and Boris gives him advice that "a dog cannot make this journey alone. but maybe a wolf can."

That evening, Balto, marking his trail by clawing trees, finds the team and offers to guide them home, but Steele, out of callousness, refuses to accept help and repeatedly attacks Balto, only to fall off a cliff, but survive. Horrified by Steeles antics, the team promptly begins respecting Balto and declares him their new lead dog. Balto then proceeds to guide the team back to Nome, but Steele spitefully camouflages Baltos marks with fake ones, and the team loses their way again. As a result, Balto gets scared, panics and runs too fast, causing the medicine to fall over a cliff. While trying to save the medicine from falling, Balto himself falls. Back in Nome, Jenna is explaining Baltos mission to the other dogs, but they dont believe her. Just then, Steele returns and lies, claiming Balto and the team are dead, using Jennas bandanna which he ripped off Baltos neck during the fight as supposed proof. However, Jenna sees through his lies and insists that Balto is coming home with the medicine. Using a trick Balto showed her earlier, Jenna places broken colored glass bottles on the outskirts of town and shines a lantern on them to simulate an illusion of the Northern Lights, hoping it will help guide Balto home.

The next morning, Balto regains consciousness and falls into despair, but after a white wolf appears and Balto notices the medicine crate still unharmed nearby, he remembers Boriss advice and realizes that being part-wolf does not weaken him, but strengthens him. Finally accepting his wolf half, Balto regains his confidence, and rallying all of his bodily strength, he drags the medicine all the way back up the cliff to the waiting team, impressing them. Through his highly developed senses of smell, Balto is able to filter out the fake marks Steele made. After overcoming further obstacles, such as nearly falling to their deaths while crossing a treacherous ice bridge, nearly getting buried in an avalanche and losing only one vial in a collapsing ice cave, Balto and the sled team finally make it back to Nome that night. As a result of Baltos return with the medicine, Steele is exposed as a liar, and the other dogs, realizing Jenna was right all along, angrily abandon Steele, ruining his reputation and shattering his pride. Reunited with Jenna, Boris, Muk and Luk, Balto is hailed as a hero by the other dogs and the townspeople. He visits a cured Rosy, who thanks him for saving her life. On the sidelines, as sled teammates Nikki, Kaltag and Star Jack Angel, Danny Mann and Robbie Rist congratulate Balto, Star comments that a memorial statue should be built in Baltos honor, which Kaltag agrees with rather than smack Star in the head for interrupting, as Kaltag spent the entire film doing.

The extended and animated flashback ends, and the film shifts back to live-action. Back in the present day, the elderly woman, her granddaughter and Blaze finally find Baltos memorial, and she explains that even to the present day, Alaska runs the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race over the same path that Balto and his team took from Nenana to Nome. When asked by her granddaughter if Blaze can follow in Baltos footsteps, the woman replies that if Blaze practices a lot, it is possible that he can. The woman is then revealed to be an older Rosy when she repeats the same line, "Thank you, Balto. I wouldve been lost without you," before walking off to join her granddaughter and Blaze. The film ends with Baltos statue standing proudly in the sunlight.


2. Cast and characters

  • Miriam Margolyes as old Rosy in the live-action sequences who tells her story to her granddaughter.
  • Donald Sinden as Doc, an old St. Bernard
  • Lola Bates-Campbell as Rosys unnamed granddaughter, who appears in the live-action sequences and is accompanied by her dog Blaze, a purebred Siberian Husky.
  • Phil Collins as Muk and Luk, a pair of polar bears. Nicolas Marlet served as the supervising animator for Muk and Luk. Collins is succeeded by Kevin Schon in the sequels.
  • Bill Bailey as a Butcher
  • Bridget Fonda as Jenna, a female copper-and-white Siberian Husky and Rosys pet as well as Baltos love interest. Robert Stevenhagen served as the supervising animator for Jenna. Fonda is succeeded by Jodi Benson in the sequels.
  • Bob Hoskins as Boris Goosinoff, a Russian snow goose and Baltos caretaker and sidekick. Kristof Serrand served as the supervising animator for Boris. Hoskins is succeeded by Charles Fleischer in the sequels.
  • Sandra Dickinson as Dixie, a female Pomeranian and one of Jennas friends who adores Steele until his lies are exposed by Balto returning with the medicine needed to cure the children. Dickinson also voices Sylvie, a female Afghan Hound who is also Jennas friend; and Rosys mother. Patrick Mate served as the supervising animator for Sylvie and Dixie. Sylvie makes a brief cameo in Wings of Change.
  • Kevin Bacon as Balto, a young adult male brown-and-grey wolfdog; being a Siberian Husky-Arctic wolf hybrid. Jeffrey James Varab and Dick Zondag served as the supervising animators for Balto. Bacon is succeeded by Maurice LaMarche in the direct-to-video sequels, Balto II: Wolf Quest and Balto III: Wings of Change.
  • Jack Angel, Danny Mann and Robbie Rist as Nikki, Kaltag and Star, respectively, the only three prominent members of Steeles team, who later abandon him for Balto. Nikki is a red-and-tan Chow-Chow and quite snarky, Kaltag is a tawny Chinook-esque dog with a somewhat rude and obnoxious personality, and Star is an agouti-colored Siberian Husky and adorably timid and clumsy. William Salazar served as the supervising animator for the team. Nikki, Kaltag and Star make brief cameos in Wings of Change.
  • Garrick Hagon as a Telegraph Operator
  • Juliette Brewer as Rosy, Jennas owner and a kind, excitable girl who was the only human in Nome kind to Balto. She falls ill along with the other children in town, but Balto brings the medicine to save their lives. David Bowers served as the supervising animator for Rosy. Rosy makes a brief cameo in Wings of Change.
  • Frank Welker uncredited as the Grizzly Bear. Welker later reprises his role as the bear in Wolf Quest.
  • Jim Cummings as Steele, a male black-and-white Alaskan Malamute who bullies Balto and also has a crush on Jenna. Sahin Ersoz served as the supervising animator for Steele. Brendan Fraser was originally cast to voice Steele, before the filmmakers decided to re-record the dialogue.
  • William Roberts as Rosys father

3. Production

Production and development on Balto began in May 1989 at Universal City Studios and Amblin Entertainment in Universal City, California, at the time An American Tail: Fievel Goes West 1991 and Were Back! A Dinosaurs Story 1993 were being developed. Voice-recording sessions took place in November 1993, around the same time Were Back! A Dinosaurs Story was released. The few British cast members Bob Hoskins, Phil Collins and Donald Sinden recorded their voices in British recording studios, while the rest of the cast recorded their voices in recording studios in Hollywood. Brendan Fraser was originally cast to voice Steele, and recorded all of his dialogue. However, due to Frasers voice for Steele not receiving a positive reaction from test audiences, director Simon Wells scrapped Frasers recording and hired Jim Cummings to re-record the dialogue. Due to the films completed animation, Cummings had to exactly match his timing to Steeles mouth movement.

After the actors were finished recording their voices, animation production and filming commenced at Amblimation in London, England. The animators drew storyboards and pencil tests rough and clean-up, and used paint, ink, cameras and recorded audio to bring the characters to life. To make the films content appear highly realistic, the filmmakers carefully studied dog sledding including the fur and muscle movement of running dogs, snowstorms, wireless telegraphy, antiquated medicine bottles and the symptoms and progression of diphtheria. Even though most of the films animation was hand-drawn, the animators also did certain scenes on the computer with Softimage, as well as Franck & Franck Studios. Additional animation was done by the Danish studio A. Film Production. James Horner composed the films music score, as well as the films only song, "Reach for the Light", sung by English musician Steve Winwood, which plays over the films closing credits. The music was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London.

The films live-action prologue and epilogue segments were filmed in Central Park in Fall 1994. The role as elderly Rosys granddaughters husky, Blaze, was played by two light red blue-eyed Siberian Huskies. Panavision cameras and lenses were used to film the live-action segments.


4. Historical differences

  • In the film, the reason why Dr. Curtis Welch orders the medicine to be sent to Nome is because his supply has completely run out. In real life, the reason was that his entire batch was past its expiration date and no longer had any effect.
  • The medicine was transported in a 300.000 unit cylinder. In the film, it is transported in a large square crate.
  • In the film, the medicine is shipped to Nenana from the Alaskan capital of Juneau, but in real life, it was shipped from Anchorage, 800 miles southeast of Nome.
  • In real life, the sled run to retrieve the medicine was actually a relay. Instead of being the leader of the first and only team, Balto was the leader of the 20th and last team to carry the medicine to Nome. The longest and most hazardous distance was traveled by the 18th and third-to-last team, which was led by Togo.
  • In real life, the dogs never drove the medicine by themselves, because none of the mushers were ever knocked unconscious.
  • In the sequels, Balto became a proud father with Jenna and they had a litter of puppies who grew up and moved on with their lives, but in real life, Balto was neutered at 6 months of age, and thus, he never sired a litter.
  • In the sequels, Balto continued living in Nome along with his family and friends the events of the third film happened in 1928, but in real life, Balto and his team were sent to the Brookside Zoo now the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in 1927 where they spent their last years. Balto rested there until his death on March 14, 1933 at the age of 14. After he died, his body was taxidermied and kept in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where it remains today.
  • Balto was never an outcast street dog as shown by the film, but was instead born in a kennel owned by the famous musher and breeder Leonhard Seppala, who raised and trained him until Balto was deemed fit for pulling a sled as the lead dog. Seppala was also the owner of Togo 1913-1929, whom he personally used to lead his dog team during the relay. Balto was used to lead the team driven by one of Seppalas workers, Gunnar Kaasen.
  • The film portrays Balto 1919-March 1933 as a brown-and-gray wolfdog. In real life, Balto was a purebred Siberian Husky and was black and white in color. Baltos colors changed to brown due to light exposure whilst on display in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The makers of the film may have chosen to differentiate Balto from the other prominent sled dog of the movie, Steele, who also had a black-and-white coat.
  • In the film, the only residents of Nome who contract diphtheria are 18 children, but in real life, many more were infected, including adults.

5. Release

The film was theatrically released in the United States on December 22, 1995 and then international theatres on January 13, 1996 when it first premiered in Brazil. Its release was vastly overshadowed by the performance of Disney Pixars Toy Story, which premiered a month earlier.


5.1. Release Box office

The film ranked 15th on its opening weekend and earned $1.5 million from a total of 1.427 theaters. The film also ranked 7th among G-rated movies in 1995. Total domestic gross reach up to $11.348.324. While the film was the biggest box office disaster of the year, it was far more successful in terms of video sales. These strong video sales led to the release of two direct-to-video sequels: Balto II: Wolf Quest and Balto III: Wings of Change being created, though neither sequel received as strong a reception as the original film.


5.2. Release Critical reception

The film received mixed reviews upon release. According to review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, it holds a 54% rating based on 24 reviews, with an average rating of 5.88/10. The critical consensus reads, Balto is a well-meaning adventure with spirited animation, but mushy sentimentality and bland characterization keeps it at paws length from more sophisticated family fare." Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film a positive review, describing the film as "a kids movie, simply told, with lots of excitement and characters you can care about" and praised every thrilling scene.


5.3. Release Home media

Balto released on VHS and Laserdisc in 1996 by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment in North America and internationally, and CIC Video in the UK. The VHS version was made available once more on 1998, under the Universal Family Features label.

The film has released on DVD in February 19, 2002, which includes a game, "Where is the Dog Sled Team". This version was reprinted along with other Universal films such as An American Tail, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West and The Land Before Time. It was released in widescreen on Blu-ray for the first time on July 4, 2017, which included a digital HD and UltraViolet copy.


6. Sequels

Two fictional direct-to-video sequels of the film followed, made by Universal Cartoon Studios with their animation done overseas by the Taiwanese studio Wang Film Productions, as Amblimation, which did the animation for the original film, had gone out of business. Due to the sequels being completely fictional and having a completely different crew, Kevin Bacon, Bob Hoskins, Bridget Fonda, and Phil Collins did not reprise their roles in either of the sequels. Instead, Bacon was replaced by Maurice LaMarche as the voice of Balto, Hoskins was replaced by Charles Fleischer as the voice of Boris, Fonda was replaced by Jodi Benson as the voice of Jenna, and Collins was replaced by Kevin Schon as the voices of Muk and Luk. Futhermore, numerous supporting characters from the original such as Nikki, Kaltag and Star either did not reappear in the sequels or were turned into background characters for unknown reasons possibly because they were either written out or the writers simply forgot about their existence. The first sequel, Balto II: Wolf Quest, was released in 2002 and follows the adventures of one of Balto and Jennas pups, Aleu, who sets off to discover her wolf heritage. The second, Balto III: Wings of Change was released in 2005. The storyline follows the same litter of pups from Balto II but focuses on another pup, Kodi, who is a member of a U.S. Mail dog sled delivery team, and is in danger of getting put out of his job by Duke, a pilot of a mail delivery bush plane. Unlike the original, neither sequels took any historical references from the true story of Balto.

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