1995 / 78 minutes
In 1925, the city of Nome, Alaska was hit by an outbreak of diphtheria, a coughing sickness that is deadly to children. While that might not seem the best topic for a kids’ animated movie, they went and did it anyway, and made something special!
You see, the diphtheria was treatable, but the doctor was out of serum to treat it and the closest train could only bring a new batch to within 700 miles. No problem, that’s what bush planes are for. But then a severe storm front grounded the bush planes. That left only dogsled teams to bridge the gap. They had to make a more than 1,000-mile round trip, through the most severe of weather, which made getting lost an easy and deadly thing to do. Many sled teams, and more than 100 dogs, were involved, but the very last team, the one that brought the medicine right to the hospital door, was led by a dog named Balto. And this is his story.
Or, rather, this is sort of his story. The facts were exciting enough but Hollywood still felt they had to make tweaks. So in the animated version, Balto is now half-wolf, which makes him an outsider among the town’s other dogs. He also has a goose and two polar bears as friends. And he and his villainous rival Steele are both interested in the same girl, a sable-colored dog named Jenna.
In reality, Balta was a Siberian husky that didn’t hang around with geese or polar bears. And no details are available about his love interests. Oh, and he couldn’t actually talk.
But aside from historical quibbles – no one should learn their history from Disney films anyway – this is a great film. Parents will appreciate how Balto shows himself to be brave and giving, willing to risk his life for a town that has never shown him love. In a peril-filled film, we get comic relief from Balto’s friends: two polar bears afraid of water, and a goose with a Russian accent. They’re also incredibly loyal, willing to stand alongside Balto no matter what he’s facing, whether bullies or an enraged black bear!
The big caution for this film is its level of tension. There’s really no letting up – Balto goes from having to face a bully twice his size to having to face a bear ten times his size. Then nature throws its worst at him, including giant icicles dropping down at him from a cave ceiling. One online reviewer said it was a bit much for their three-year-old daughter, but she could just close her eyes at the scary parts. I’m wondering:
- What kind of three-year-old could manage to not be freaked out by this?
- If her eyes were closed for the scary parts, did she miss three-quarters of the film? This is pretty much non-stop peril!
For example, Balto and his friends fight that enormous black bear. While all the other animals in the story can talk, this is simply a beast, raging at them. When Balto fights him on a frozen lake, it looks like Balto is going to drown to death, as he disappears below the ice and it closes up over him. Adults know it will turn out all right, but little kids don’t, so this is going to be super tense for them.
There’s also the very different sort of tension brought about by the diphtheria outbreak. In one scene, Balto and his friend Jenna peer through the hospital windows at all the sick coughing little ones. Sensitive children could certainly get worried about what will happen to all these kids.
So no, this isn’t for three-year-olds, and I think some ten-year-olds would have a hard time of it. But it does all have a happy ending, so kids who understand that’s the direction it’s heading will find this exciting, rather than scary.
The only other caution would concern an odd moment where Balto, after falling off a cliff, sees a white wolf come out of the mist. I think the point of this is that Balto has to embrace the very part of himself that others are mocking – his wolf half – as it’s only that toughness that will get him through. But is it a vision, or a real wolf? No words are spoken, and the scene is very short. So…odd.
For kids who can handle the tension, this will be a super-exciting movie with lots of action but also lots of laughs. But this is not an all-ages film, as it is certain to be too tense for many kids.