|Directed by||Simon Wells|
|Produced by||Steve Hickner|
|Music by||James Horner|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$11 million|
Balto is a 1995 animated adventure film directed by Simon Wells, produced by Amblin Entertainment and distributed by Universal Pictures. The film, which stars the voices of Kevin Bacon, Bridget Fonda, Jim Cummings, Phil Collins and Bob Hoskins, is loosely based on the true story of the eponymous dog who helped save children infected with diphtheria in the 1925 serum run to Nome. Though primarily an animated film, it uses a live-action framing device that takes place in New York City's Central Park and features Miriam Margolyes.
Although the film was a major financial disappointment (it was overshadowed by the success of Pixar's Toy Story), its subsequent sales on home video led to two direct-to-video sequels: Balto II: Wolf Quest (2002) and Balto III: Wings of Change (2005), though none of the original voice cast reprised their roles.
In New York City, an elderly woman and her granddaughter are walking through Central Park, looking for a memorial statue. As they seat themselves for a rest, the grandmother recounts a story about Nome, Alaska.
In 1925, Balto, a wolfdog hybrid, lives on the outskirts of Nome with his adoptive father, a Russian snow goose named Boris, and two polar bears, Muk and Luk. Being a half-breed, Balto is ridiculed by dogs and humans alike. His only friend in town is a red husky named Jenna whom Balto has a crush on and is challenged by the town's favorite sled dog, Steele, a fierce and arrogant Alaskan Malamute.
That night, all the children, including Jenna's owner, Rosy, fall ill with diphtheria. Severe winter weather conditions prevent medicine from being brought by air or sea from Anchorage, and the closest rail line ends in Nenana after authorization to transport the antitoxin by rail is given by the Governor of Alaska in Juneau. 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 Steele exposes his wolf-dog heritage, resulting in him being disqualified. The team departs that night with Steele in the lead and picks up the medicine successfully, but on the way back, conditions deteriorate and the disoriented team ends up stranded at the base of a steep slope with the musher knocked unconscious.
When the word reaches Nome, Balto sets out in search of them with Boris, Muk and Luk. On the way, they are attacked by a huge grizzly bear, but Jenna, who followed their tracks, intervenes. The bear pursues Balto out onto a frozen lake, where it falls through the ice and drowns, while Muk and Luk save Balto from a similar fate. However, Jenna is injured and cannot continue on. Balto instructs Boris and the polar bears to take her back home while he continues on alone. Balto eventually finds the team, but Steele refuses his help and attacks him until he loses his balance and falls off a cliff. Balto takes charge of the team, but an unrelenting Steele throws them off the trail and they lose their way again. While attempting to save the medicine from falling down a cliff, Balto himself falls.
Back in Nome, Jenna is explaining Balto's mission to the other dogs when Steele returns, claiming the entire team, including Balto, is dead. However, Jenna sees through his deception and assures Balto will return with the medicine. Using a trick Balto showed her earlier, she places broken colored glass bottles on the outskirts of town and shines a lantern on them to simulate the lights of an aurora, hoping it will help guide Balto home. When Balto regains consciousness, he is ready to give up hope, but when a large, white wolf appears and he notices the medicine crate still intact nearby, he realizes that his part-wolf heritage is a strength, not a weakness, and drags the medicine back up the cliff to the waiting team. Using his advanced senses, Balto is able to filter out the false markers Steele created.
After encountering further challenges, and losing only one vial, Balto and the sled team finally make it back to Nome. A pity-playing Steele is exposed as a liar and abandoned by the other dogs, ruining his reputation. Reunited with Jenna and his friends, Balto earns respect from both the dogs and the humans. He visits a cured Rosy, who thanks him for saving her. Back in the present day, the elderly woman and her granddaughter finally find the memorial commemorating Balto, and she explains that the Iditarod trail covers the same path that Balto and his team took from Nenana to Nome. The woman, who is actually Rosy, repeats the same line, "Thank you, Balto. I would have been lost without you," before walking off to join her granddaughter and her Siberian Husky, Blaze. The Balto statue stands proudly in the sunlight.
Screenwriter Elana Lesser first recalled being told the story of Balto by her grandfather as a child, and as an adult, felt that it would make an excellent animated film. She and screenwriter Cliff Ruby, pitched a screenplay to Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment in Universal City, California, and executives Douglas Wood and Bonne Radford subsequently relayed it to co-directors Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells at Amblin's London-based animation studio, Amblimation. Although Steven Spielberg agreed that the story had potential, he was initially concerned that such a film would not be colorful enough. To reassure Spielberg, Wells showed him several color studies by production designer Hans Bacher, which showed that the film would not simply depict black and white dogs against a desolate scenery. Nibbelink and Wells had initially developed Balto together, before Nibbelink left to continue working on We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story (1993), and screenwriters Roger S. H. Schulman and David Steven Cohen, as well as several uncredited writers, did further development.
Balto was officially put into production in March 1993, under the working title Snowballs. To have a source for the dogs' character animation to be based on, the filmmakers brought in about seven Siberian Huskies and videotaped them walking around in the studio, while the animators studied their movements. In addition, Wells and several other crew members took special trips to Finland, where they studied dog sledding. The tight budget necessitated many difficult decisions; for instance, it was calculated that in most shots, the effects animators could not afford to include both footprints and shadows, and had to figure out what they could get away with omitting. Although the film was mainly hand-drawn animated, considerable computer animation was implemented into the film's more challenging visual elements; most notably, all of the falling snow was animated using an early CGI particle animation system. All of the ink-and-paint work was also done using the 2D animation software program Toonz, making Balto the first animated film to use it. Even then, the program was still in its trial stages at the time, which necessitated an intense interaction with the developers. Additional animation was done by the Danish studio A. Film Production.
Because the characters were designed before the voices were cast, the actors were handed several model sheets to look at before each recording session, in order to get a sense of the characters they were portraying. Kevin Bacon was a last-minute replacement for the original actor hired to voice Balto, after the film's animation was already completed, and as such, had to precisely match his timing to Balto's mouth movement. According to Bacon, "It was very hard. I didn't like it. They would play his dialogue in the way that he had said it in my head right before I'd say my line." Similarly, Brendan Fraser, who was filming Airheads (1994) at the time, was originally cast as Steele, because Wells had envisioned Steele as a school quarterback jock carried away by his sense of importance, and felt that Fraser fit that personality well. According to Wells, "I liked Brendan a great deal, and we did one recording session with him that was terrific." However, Spielberg wanted to feel a clearer sense of Steele's "inherent evil", so Fraser was replaced by Jim Cummings. Wells stated that Cummings "did a fantastic job, and totally made the character live, so I don't regret the choice." Bob Hoskins, who had previously worked with Spielberg on Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and Hook (1991), voiced Boris, and Wells stated that his performance proved to be helpful in shaping the character, praising it as "a lot more emotional and effusive than we had originally conceived the character to be." Phil Collins, despite having never done voice-over work before, actively expressed interest in the role of Muk and Luk, and even called Amblimation to ask for the role. Wells praised his voice for Muk as "just head and shoulders better than anything else we heard."
The film score was composed by James Horner, who had previously scored An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991) and We're Back!. According to Wells, because Horner worked in California, and Amblimation was based in London, he "preferred to present his score as the orchestral finished product, and make alterations based on notes from that finished product." Horner also collaborated with songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil to write an original song, "Reach for the Light", sung by Steve Winwood, which plays over the film's end credits.
The film's live-action prologue and epilogue segments were filmed in Central Park in Fall 1994. The role as elderly Rosy's granddaughter's husky, Blaze, was played by two light red blue-eyed Siberian Huskies.
The film has many historical inaccuracies:
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 that of Pixar Animation Studios' first film, Toy Story, which had premiered a month earlier.
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. Its total domestic gross was $11,348,324. Despite being a disappointment at the box-office, it was much 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.
On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 56% based on 25 reviews, with an average rating of 5.90/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Balto is a well-meaning adventure with spirited animation, but mushy sentimentality and bland characterization keeps it at paw's 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.
Balto was released on VHS and Laserdisc on April 2, 1996, by MCA/Universal Home Video in North America and CIC Video internationally. The VHS version was made available once more on August 11, 1998, under the Universal Family Features label.
The film was released on DVD on 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 initially released in widescreen on Blu-ray for the first time exclusively at Walmart retailers on April 4, 2017 before its wide release on July 4, 2017.
|Soundtrack album by |
|Released||December 4, 1995|
|Recorded||1994 - 1995|
|Studio||Abbey Road Studios|
|Genre||Pop, modern classical|
|Singles from Balto|
Balto: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is the soundtrack of the film, composed by James Horner. The soundtrack was released on December 4, 1995 by MCA. It includes the film's only song, "Reach for the Light" performed by Steve Winwood.
The film received five Annie Award nominations, including Best Animated Feature, but lost to Toy Story.
Two 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 had gone out of business. Due to the significantly lower budgets and different production personnel of the sequels, Kevin Bacon, Bob Hoskins, Bridget Fonda, and Phil Collins did not reprise their roles in either of them. 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. In addition, numerous supporting characters from the original (such as Steele, Nikki, Kaltag and Star) either did not return in the sequels or became background characters in them. The first sequel, Balto II: Wolf Quest, was released in 2002 and follows the adventures of one of Balto and Jenna's pups, Aleu, who sets off to discover her wolf heritage. The second, Balto III: Wings of Change, was released in 2004. 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, as characters from the first sequel could not be brought back owing to Mary Kay Bergman’s suicide in 1999, causing Balto II to be delayed for two years. Unlike the original film, neither of the sequels took any historical references from the true story of Balto and contain no live action sequences.