Tis a tale worthy of recognition…the story of Balto: the canine hybrid who saved numerous lives in Nome, Alaska. In a live-action/animated film starring Kevin Bacon (as the voice of Balto), this movie was based on a real living legend, but I believe some details were added for entertainment value. During a time when technology was only just starting to bloom, extreme measures had to be taken to prevent deaths because time was running out. Our only hope…was Balto.
Being half dog, half wolf, Balto was treated differently from other dogs by both humans and dogs alike. Neither saw him as a worthy companion nor a valuable sled dog. In fact, it was said that Balto was seen as a “scrub dog”, meaning inferior or slow-moving. Since no one would take him in, Balto lived on the streets like a stray dog rather than live in the wild like a free wolf.
Directed by Simon Wells, produced by Amblin Entertainment, distributed by Universal Pictures, and released in 1995. Being G-rated, this film is sure to delight all ages! Especially when you look over the cast of voice actors! Besides the talented Kevin Bacon, there’s other such wonderful actors such as Bob Hoskins, who plays Boris, Balto’s best friend, and happens to be a Russian snow goose with a Russian accent. He even has his own admirers of polar bears: Luk (a massive, tall mute) and Muk (a short, stout loudmouth) – both voiced by Phil Collins.
In Nome, Alaska, a man works at his communications desk with his English Bulldog, Morris, at his feet. Poor Morris. Word is that a brutal snowstorm is heading their way. But no matter at the moment, a race is on in the town streets with Steele, a villainous Siberian Malamute dog (voiced by the one and only = Jim Cummings), leading the way. It was here in this moment when Balto first noticed Jenna, a beautiful Red Husky dog (voiced by Bridget Fonda), who’s owned by a girl named Rosy (voiced by Juliette Brewer).
The wind sweeps up Rosy’s hat, landing smack-dab in the middle of the racetrack. Due to the girl’s connection to Jenna, Balto decides to retrieve the hat in hopes of winning Jenna’s affection. Unfortunately, Balto makes Steele look ordinary in the race by running side-by-side with him. This only makes an enemy of Steele. Turns out he’s got a fan club of three goons. The smallest dog, Star, who tends to speak his mind, always makes comments that get him in trouble. He’s like “the Ed of the Hyena trio” from Disney’s animated film The Lion King. If I were to take Charlie Day and transform him into a cartoon dog, that would be him = the comic relief = my favorite. I vouch that if this movie is ever rebooted, Charlie Day should voice him. The best part by the way is when he does an impersonation of E.T. (the alien) inside a cave later in the film.
Now just as Balto made himself enemies, he made a new friend as well. That being Jenna of course, but her human caretakers (except Rosy) quickly dissuade Balto from socializing with her or Rosy. His wolf genetics make him dangerous in the eyes of humans unfortunately. He’s not extremely big overall but his feet are twice as big as that of a dog’s.
On January 21, 1925, a most dreadful disease overtakes the town infecting several children, including Rosy, called diphtheria. It is caused by bacteria that invades nose, mouth, and throat. Left untreated, it can suffocate the infected. The only treatment is anti toxin, and the only source in Alaska was located in a hospital in Anchorage, a distance of 1000 miles away.
A plan devised quickly with a train transporting the medicine to the city of Nenana. Then a team of sled dogs would carry the medicine the rest of the way to Nome. An open race commenced to decide which dog would lead the team. To be fair, Balto won against all odds but Steele managed to swindle his way into lead. The team of sled dogs were then prepped, and set off for their mission. Balto could only watch them from afar since he was not allowed to participate.
As luck slips away, the sled dogs find themselves in a dilemma. Lost, freezing, and without a conscious musher while stranded in a massive snowstorm. Were it not for Steele’s pride, they would not have been off-course to such a high degree. Towns receive word that due to the storm’s ferocity, that the “Lost sled team only hope”. Morris does his part by spreading the news to the other dogs in town; convincing Balto to “step up to the plate”.
His odd comrades join him despite his objections and a whole ordeal happens to them while on route. A most vicious bear with glowing eyes attacks the gang. But thanks to Balto’s clever tactics, the bear drowns in ice-cold depths. Which in turn helped our goofy polar bear duo to achieve the one thing they haven’t ever been able to successfully do…, swim! I know right? Polar bears who can’t swim? Hilarious.
With a comrade injured, Balto instructs everyone to go back to town while he continue onward alone. Foolish, but brave. Before departing, Boris reminds Balto, ” A dog cannot make the journey alone. But maybe a wolf can.” Inspiring.
Without rest, Balto trudges on through blustery winds and snow, marking his trail along the way. He discovers the weary team and offers them his assistance, but Steele refuses to let him. His anger blowing sky-high and causes himself to fly over the edge of the cliff. Surviving miraculously, he finds his way back to town. Proclaiming how heroic he was in trying to save the sled dogs; lying through his very teeth – the scoundrel.
Balto leads the team, which all the dogs reluctantly accept, and after time comes to realize that all of his markings have been tampered with. No doubt the work of Steele. No worries though, Balto relies on his other senses to guide them home. Except Balto acts boldly to save the serum from falling to its destruction which in turn causes him to fall regardless off the cliff side along with the medicine.
However unfortunate this may be, it served Balto good purpose. Upon his landing, which he survives without injury, Balto is greeted by a majestic white wolf. The wolf looks to Balto as an equal – not as his enemy or prey, an exact equal. Not knowing how to react to the wolf’s howling greeting, Balto turns his head away in shame. This tells the wolf that Balto denies his “wolf-hood”. In dissatisfaction, the white wolf disappears, leaving only a trail of footprints behind him.
Just then, Boris’ words of advice ring true in his head, and suddenly it clicks! Balto places his paw onto a footprint of the wolf. A perfect match! He rises, only this time (and for the first time in his entire life) Balto embraces who he is. It stands true, he is also part wolf. Standing tall and proud, Balto throws back his head to release a most soulful howl. The white wolf appears again and returns to return the favor. Both howl together in complete unison. It’s such a moving moment that it makes you wish you were also part wolf.
A new and improved Balto pucks up the courage to do what no dog could possibly do: climb the steep cliff side carrying a box of fragile medicine. and then lead the team home using only his senses. A tough challenge to face, but Balto is more than ready to rise to the occasion. With much luck, the team of sled dogs arrive in Nome, Alaska on February 2nd at 5:30am. It was said that the dogs were too exhausted to even bark.
With the mission a success, Balto was commemorated for his heroic deeds. Even got approached and embraced by the townspeople. Balto shuddered for he was very unfamiliar with being petted. On a side note, I can verify that half dog/wolf breeds are not the type to be coddled. I’ve met only one but I can tell you that they are very protective and distant. Too rough around the edges to be treated like a normal dog, but beautiful and alluring I find them to be. Truly I felt safe when in their presence.
Not only does Balto get the recognition he deserves for his heroic deeds, he also gets the girl. Balto, you ole’ rascal. A man by the name of F.G. Roth had a statue made in his honor, which stands true to this very day in New York City’s Central Park since it was erected on December 17th, 1925. My favorite character, Star, was actually the one who suggested the statue. First comment he ever made that he was not punished for. As a matter of fact, he was praised for his bright idea. A word of advice: no one deserves to be put down for freely speaking one’s mind, especially if their intentions are pure.
The same way the movie starts, it ends just the same – inside Central Park with an elderly woman (played by Miriam Margolyes). Her attention focused on the famous statue of Balto. Apparently, she had been telling the story of Balto this whole time to her grandchild. We only got to see the story through the film. She, on the other hand, got to experience it all first-hand, for she was that little girl. Yes, she is Rosy. Only now she is called Grandma Rosy. Her gratitude shows through with her mere words, “Thank you, Balto. I would have been lost without you”. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Many thanks Balto…
Fun facts to know:
- Balto, a Siberian husky (hybrid) dog, was born in the year of 1919 in Nome, Alaska, and died on March 14, 1933, at the age of 10.
- Named after Samuel Johannesen Balto, a famous Norwegian “Sami” (Arctic herding people who lived in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia).
- Balto was a star attraction at the Cleveland Zoo for six years, until his unfortunate death.
- To commemorate the brave team of sled dogs of the 1925 serum run, “The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog” race has run every year since 1973 in Nome.
- Balto’s skeletal remains reside in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. It is known that the city has a hard time parting from him, for he is very much-loved.
- His statue reads: “Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that related anti toxin 600 miles over treacherous waters, through arctic blizzards, from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925 – Endurance, Fidelity, Intelligence.”