Movie #35 2021: Balto (1995)

Did you know that Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment once had an animated branch known as ‘Amblimation’? Me neither, until now.

See, Amblimation only survived three feature films and two animated TV series before being sold to DreamWorks Animation, where all of Amblimation’s employees were transferred to as a result. Why? Well, because of what drives all of capitalism: money. Balto – despite being surprisingly great – lost a grand total of $20 million versus its budget in 1995, in part due to the fact that Pixar’s debut Toy Story was released only a month earlier, and we all know what an overwhelming success that was… Alas, many people seemed to forget to go and see this heartwarming tale of a single dog/wolf hybrid, who voyaged through life-threatening Alaskan blizzards to save a small town from diphtheria. Based on a true story, the film packs this whirlwind story of our hero Balto into only 78 minutes, making it a perfect watch for young children.

It all sounds pretty sickly sweet, right? Wrong. There are so many parallels to today’s main issue that it’s kind of eerie. A deadly virus, quarantine and a shortage of medical supplies? I was absolutely not expecting this sweet, animated movie to be so pandemic-heavy 👀 But don’t worry, there’s enough lightness and comedy within it to get you through.

On an aesthetics-only basis, it’s hard to believe that Toy Story was released in the same year as Balto. To be honest, it’s not even the best 2D animated film I’ve seen (hi, Pocahontas!) However, there are parts of the animation itself that are still really great. The way the whirring snow is animated is particularly pretty, and that evil grizzly bear? It looks completely different to the rest of the movie but wow, it’s so unique and effective. Keep an eye out for that part – it’s breath-taking.

I promised that there’d be some humour to get you through the more somber elements, and here they are. Bob Hoskins casually voicing a Russian goose is the comic relief that prevents this film from being extremely dark. Alongside that, all of these dogs living in Alaska but having New Jersey accents really tickled me, and somehow it worked really well. Bob Hoskins and Jersey accents: what more do you need?! Here’s what you need: an E.T reference. I guess that’s what you can get away with if Spielberg is your producer. 

Simply put, this is a really heartfelt, cute kids’ film about heroism, determination, and being your authentic self. I was hovering over rating this a 3.5, but by the end I realised there’s relatively little to complain about here.

Not groundbreaking, but the narrative is really sweet and there’s no reason it can’t exist alongside a Pixar-saturated world.

Balto is available to stream on Netflix and Now TV in the UK.

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