In "Balto," a goose makes a pun about a "wild goose chase," a mutt routinely bonks a dopey dog on the head with a paw balled up like a fist and roly-poly polar bears coo and giggle like precocious infants.
This, the filmmakers tell us with straight faces, is "based on a true story."
On "Balto's" poster and in print ads, the words "based on a true story" seem to be part of the film's title. (Remember how Disney tried to separate itself from historical fact with "Pocahontas"?) Universal is truly touting the movie's potential educational aspect, hoping that the history lesson, however dubious, will induce dutiful parents to drag children to the nearest multiplex. That may be its only selling point; the entertainment value is slight.
"Balto," an animated adventure about a heroic dog leading a sled team through treacherous Alaskan terrain to bring a vaccine for diphtheria to a stricken community, is bookended by a live-action sequence that further underscores its "true story." A horribly made-up Miriam Margolyes (but then, how many other animated films even need a makeup artist?) schleps through Central Park in search of a statue commemorating "The Sled Dog." Why the fuss, her granddaughter reasonably wonders; Margolyes begins a reverie that disconcertingly calls into question her grasp on reality by becoming a cartoon flashback.
From there, the film takes far too long in setting up its premise--that lovable Balto (voiced by Kevin Bacon) is the town outcast, only because he's part wolf; that Steele (Jim Cummings) is a dirt-bag dog posing as a hero; and that only the virtuous husky Jenna (Bridget Fonda) can divine the truth about both of them. The diphtheria epidemic breaks, and Balto, though clearly the fastest animal in the territory, is barred from the team.
Obviously, however, he does end up leading the supporting canines on the fur-raising adventure. At that point, "Balto" picks up a bit, turning into something of a cartoon version of the French '50s classic "The Wages of Fear," only without the nihilism or the suspense.
This much is true: In 1925, a dog named Balto did lead a sled team during part of the mission (the route they took is now the one used for the Iditarod dog race). But the human sled-driver (here consigned to little more than skulking about in silhouette) and the other dogs did some work too. No records exist suggesting the dogs spoke among one another.
Even as voiced by Bacon, Balto doesn't have the sort of charisma to get kids to truly root for him. Bob Hoskins, as the goose, works far too hard at whimsy to be whimsical, while Cummings is one-dimensionally villainous. Only Fonda has the necessary light touch here.
Outside a couple of action sequences (an avalanche and a speedy jaunt through a cavern quickly dropping all its stalactites), the animation is merely competent, a consistent problem for non-Disney animated features. A bear-fighting sequence seems suspiciously cribbed from "The Fox and the Hound." Design is in general uninspired--none of the characters would make a particularly lovable plush toy, which seems to be the criterion for these things nowadays.
My own dog was annoyed by the film's depiction of distrust toward Balto solely because of his lupine background; she yelped, "How can America ever move forward until it gets over its prejudice toward wolf-like dogs?" That last sentence, of course, was "based on a true story."
* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: a few intense moments, but nothing too strenuous.
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Kevin Bacon: Balto
Bridget Fonda: Jenna
Bob Hoskins: Boris
A Universal Pictures presentation of an Amblin Entertainment production, released by Universal. Director Simon Wells. Producer Steve Hickner. Executive producers Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Bonne Radford. Screenplay by Cliff Ruby, Elana Lesser, David Steven Cohen, Roger Schulman. Editors Nick Fletcher, Sim Evan-Jones. Music James Horner. Production design Hans Bacher. Running time: 1 hour, 14 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.