BaltoScreencap

Balto

Though it’s become quite apparent that Amblin wasn’t the most perfect of animation studios, there were some moments in their work that showcased what true masters of their craft they could have been. This is particularly evident in their final film, Balto. And though critics at the time may have been harsh, this film is in desperate need of a re-appraisal.

Balto tells a (very fantastical) version of the true events that happened in Nome, Alaska, when a deadly diphtheria epidemic overtook the children of the town. In hopes of getting the medicine back to the little ones in time, a dogsled team was put together to save the day. But in this animated retelling, all of this is seen from the perspective of our half wolf/dog hero, voiced by Kevin Bacon.

As you’d expect, this film takes extensive liberties with the story it’s retelling, but to a young moviegoer like myself, it didn’t matter. I was wrapped up in all the doggie drama of Balto’s romance with Jenna (Bridget Fonda), his angst with the villainous Steel (Jim Cummings), and the town’s inability to accept him. But in my adult years, I find myself looking back on Balto for not the story, but for the stunning animation.

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Compare the animation here to We’re Back and even segments of Fievel Goes West, where the overall product seems often rushed and sloppy. Balto is easily the most polished of the three. No visual is rushed, no sequence sacrificed for the importance of another, and every shift of the pen and ink is there to be treasured. Even just the tiniest glances on our lead character’s face speaks volumes. You can tell how much the team loved this project.

But there’s also forced comedy that never sticks the landing (like Phil Collins as not one, but two pointless polar bears) and a villain who is as one-note as they come. The flaws of Balto in its script weight it down. At times, it does intriguing things for the medium (such as a live-action opening narration), but then it will go low for the sake of going low (like random dancing just for a cheap laugh). It makes you wish there was more polish on story, more attention paid to consistency.

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But at the end of the day, Balto works simply because its title character is so compelling. We like our heroes rough around the edges, attached to a heart of gold. He’s misunderstood, but willing to prove his worth. Balto is as down-to-earth as you’d hope from an animated dog.

Sadly, Balto opened in a devastating 15th place, earning only $1.5 million at the box office in its opening weekend. Though it eventually gained attention and a cult following on home video (including multiple direct-to-video sequels), this turn of events was enough to shut down Amblimation for good.

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The True Hero of Amblimation

Though it is sad to see that none of Amblin’s animated films became the enduring classics they could have been, there is an underlying thread to these three that has kept me returning to them time and time again: the music. Much like Alan Menken made the music of the Disney Renaissance so memorable, James Horner is the unsung hero of Amblimation.

In Fievel Goes West, James proved that he could bring a new sound to a property he had already tackled with great success. He incorporated traditional western genre themes, while also creating new songs that, while never as successful as “Somewhere Out There,” remain some of his most charming work.

We’re Back also shows that Horner magic in its musical queues, particularly in the calmer moments, like when the Dream Radio is turned on for the first time. The melody might not be as memorable, but it just adds warmth to a movie that is at times too wacky for its own good. And then there’s the silly and catchy “Roll Back to the Rock,” which shows Horner could have a bit of fun with these projects.

But just like the film itself, Balto remains the best of Horner’s work with Amblimation. The score retains that enchanting but massive scope that made Horner a household name to film soundtrack fans. From the great wolf sequence in the snow to Balto’s race home to save Rosie, it’s hard to choose one beautiful melody over another when it comes time to pick a favorite.

Whether you’re a fan of Horner’s style or not, its hard to deny the impact he left on Amblimation’s movies. May his work remind us how vital musical composition is to a movie’s legacy, and when done right, can make our hearts (nostalgically and otherwise) soar to new heights. He did that for me with his work on these movies and continues to bring me to tears every time I revisit them.

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“Memory…”

It’s funny to think that an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats was going be the follow-up to Balto. According to production designer Hans Bacher, it was going to incorporate miniature sets combined with hand-drawn animation, and judging from the concept art, the character designs were going be quite impressive.

Sure, it sounds like a mixture of something way too ambitious and strange for even the most adventurous of studios, but it would have been something unique compared to what Amblin’s competitors were creating at the time. And that’s exactly the mindset that I always think about when it comes to Amblimation’s legacy: they were willing to try something new, even if it was a failure.

The animation industry is already a risky venture. It can take years to make a movie and you have to hope that audiences would “get” your work years after your started (or pray that toy sales will save it in the end). And though the team at Amblimation didn’t get much claim or respect over 20 years ago, their heartwarming ventures into the animated unknown deserve a second look.

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