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movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Balto

Starring: Bridget Fonda, Bob Hoskins
Director: Simon Wells
Rated: G
RunTime: 78 Minutes
Release Date: December 1995
Genres: Animation, Kids

*Also starring: Danny Martin, Jim Cummings, Phil Collins, Juliette Brewer, Miriam Margolyes, Lola Bates-Campbell

Review by Steve Rhodes
1½ stars out of 4

BALTO is a cartoon movie for kids. Although I was bored silly by it and think it contains unacceptably poor quality animation, nevertheless, my son is a testament to the fact that young kids may go for it regardless.

BALTO is based on a true story. It starts and ends as a live action film in New York City's Central Park where a Grandmother (Miriam Margolyes) and her granddaughter are looking for a statue of the real Balto who was an animal half dog and half wolf who saved many people during an Alaskan blizzard in 1925. Quickly the movie shifts to a cartoon version of the tale.

Being a half-breed, Balto (voiced by Kevin Bacon) is not very popular in the little isolated settlement of Nome, Alaska. His only friends are his sidekick, a Russian snow goose named Boris (voiced by Bob Hoskins), as well as two polar bears named Muk and Luk (both voiced by Phil Collins). He does have a blossoming romance with a pedigreed husky called Jenna (voiced by Bridget Fonda). This romance is a take off on the one from LADY AND THE TRAMP, but like most of this highly derivative movie, it is a pale imitation of the genuine article. Jenna is being wooed by Steele (voiced by Jim Cummings) who is the current leader of the sled dogs.

The first part of the movie has Balto upset because he is not a full blooded dog. Boris reflects that, "He only knows what he is not. If he could only see what he is." Jenna's owner is a little girl named Rosy (Juliette Brewer). Rosy gets diphtheria, and as she is "the eighteenth case this week", the doctor is all out of diphtheria antitoxin. Planes and boats try to get through to Nome, but as they are over six hundred miles away in a blizzard, nothing can make it. Finally, a train goes a little part of the way, but they need a sled dog team to go six hundred miles to pick up the antitoxin for Rosy and all of the other now sick inhabitants of the town. The movie is about Balto's bravery and his clash with Steele who would rather see people die than Balto get the glory.

Many heroic scenes follow and Balto muses, "since when do you need a pedigree to help someone". Still he has his doubts, but Boris is always by his side with words of encouragement like, "Let me tell you something Balto. A dog can not make this journey alone, but maybe a wolf can."

So why was I bored with such an inspiring tale of the original Iditarod sled race? Well, I have three main criticisms of the movie. First, if you have seen most of the old Disney feature length cartoons, you will see little new here. Almost every scene is one you will swear you have seen before. As one of many examples, the sled goes over a breaking bridge, and Balto has just enough strength to pull the sled up when the bridge collapses and the sled starts sliding into the canyon. I have seen scene this many times before.

Second, thanks to poor direction (Simon Wells), the voices have no life to them. None. Compare this to any Disney film especially to LADY AND THE TRAMP which this movie most closely resembles. Every character there came alive with distinctive, interesting, compelling, and believable voices. Here they speak in dull tones. There is not a single character that was believable, the worse being Steele. Moreover, the script (Elana Lesser and Cliff Ruby) has almost no laughs. One of the few times I heard much laughter in the theater was when one character hit another with a snowball. Now, if that scene, which is duplicated in a hundred other movies, is the best the writers can come up with, you know the movie is in serious trouble.

Third, the animation is pathetic and has a two dimensional stick figure feel to it. After the recent Disney cartoons (POCAHONTAS, LION KING, and TOY STORY), the bar has been raised. The quality of the images here pale (pun intended) in comparison. Let me give some examples. The colors are all washed out and the characters, see especially the grizzly bear, are not drawn with sufficient detail and colors. The cels look like they have been sitting in the son too long and the color has been bleached out. This was not just some problem with the print I saw because the live action part was full of rich colors. Take as another example the lights in the cartoon. Lights in BALTO are usually done as a ball of light that is bright for two feet and then the light disappears entirely. There is none of the natural tapering off of real light. Compare this to the realistic lighting effects that are common today in feature length cartoons. Finally, there are a lot of falling snow scenes. None of the animals get even a speck of snow on them during these snow falls because I guess that would make them slightly trickier to draw.

BALTO drags on for only 1:14. It is rated G and would not offend anyone. My son Jeffrey (age 6 1/2) gets frighten easily, but almost nothing scared him in BALTO except for the brief grizzly bear scene which was a good excuse for a trip to a local lap. I think BALTO is fine for kids of any age. My ever agreeable son has given a thumbs up to all of the 18 different movies we took him to this year, and this movie was no exception. I can not recommend that anyone waste their time with BALTO - better to see TOY STORY for a third or fourth time. Since Jeffrey did like the film and never got scared, since there is nothing in it to offend anyone in it, and since we are supposed to be big hearted during the Christmas season, I am most generously awarding BALTO * 1/2.

Copyright 1995 Steve Rhodes

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