As stated during Random 90's Animation Month, there were a significant number of unusual and interesting animated films from the 1990's that were not yet available through Netflix during the actual movie marathon. Whenever they do become available, either through Netflix itself or other means, I'll be reviewing them as they pop up. "Balto" was just recently on Comcast OnDemand (managed to catch it on the night they took it off, as it happens), and so here's our first such review.
It took me a couple of nights to fully digest "Balto". There are a lot of things to like in it, and it is easily the best of the three theatrical Amblimation films. But there are also a lot of things that keep me from loving it.
I don't remember being particularly enthralled with "Balto" as a kid. Revisiting the film as an adult, I think I understand why, and this probably helps explain why you don't see much nostalgia for "Balto" and also why the film wasn't terribly popular in it's initial release:
"Balto" is essentially like many other animated features where cute animal characters do cute, fun animal character things and their leader saves the day just through bravery and by being himself. Except this time, all those cute animals are doing their cute animal thing against the backdrop of little children in agonizing, excruciating pain dying horribly as a Diphtheria epidemic rips right through their little village.
As you might imagine, the juxtaposition of cute animals and little kids dying horribly makes this film pretty rough going for it's intended young audience. Hell, before the climax of "Balto", we get to see a madcap (and very "Les Poissons"-ish) scene where the goofy goose character gets chased around a butcher shop and a scene where one of the dogs happens upon the village carpenter, who had previously gifted a little girl with a handmade sled of her very own, building a set of small coffins. Look, you know I'll stand by dark animated films. But -and I will admit it is hard to quantify exactly why- somehow it feels like a bit much when you're presenting a very real threat that is slowly killing a little human kid just like you...
The reality subtext, which is hard to ignore when you watch the film as an adult, doesn't help things. You see, "Balto" here is in the same somewhat unenviable boat as the better-known "Pocahontas" and "Anastasia". It is an animated feature film that is somewhat... kind of... a little bit... if you squint and tilt your head sideways... not really... inspired by an actual true historical event. (Long, long pause.) Well, a couple of the characters in the movie have the same names as the people involved in that actual thing that really happened, so there. At any rate, it's hard to watch "Balto" without wondering how many of those adorable little sick kids survived in reality.
But let's try (real hard) to ignore all that for now. How's the movie itself? Well, as I said, it is very definitely the best theatrical Amblimation film. It is also the least interesting Amblimation film to discuss, given how "An American Tail 2: Fievel Goes West" and "We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story" were so fascinatingly bad. "Balto" is merely inept, since the things it gets wrong aren't all that unusual.
You've got bored-sounding, miscast live-action actors working against professional voice actors. You've got some surprisingly sloppy, almost unprofessional animation. Indeed, the film looks like it might have been rushed to finish. You've got some very generic looking character designs right next to very stylized characters who appear to be from a different movie entirely. In particular, while I love the design and animation of the two otherwise irritating bears animated by Nicolas Marlet, they really look like they wandered in from an alternate universe. The music isn't very interesting, the pacing is a little strange (the film is overall fast-paced, but the second half feels very rushed), and I don't even know what the filmmakers thought the live-action bookends were contributing to the experience. They just make the opening and closing of the movie feel like a bad Christmas special.
"Balto" wound up being the last theatrical feature released by Amblimation. Steven Spielberg essentially abandoned the studio to focus on the then-forming Dreamworks S.K.G. studio, and it looks as though many of the people who worked on "Balto" followed him there. Meanwhile, as Universal animation was want to do at the time, the film was followed by a mercifully brief series of increasingly strange sequels.
For more in this series, click this link or the "Random 90's Animation Month" tag below.
Sketch of the Day
It's my 500'th post! Have some colorful dinosaurs!