What I learned when I re-watched ‘Balto’ after 20 years

Balto was a beautiful animated film that came out the week of Christmas 1995—in fact 20 years ago today— which was unfortunately around the same time of the premiere a little movie you may have heard of called Toy Story. At the box office the Pixar darling stomped all over this smaller feature by the short-lived Amblin Entertainment, yet 20 years later, Balto sticks with me more. I don’t know if it was a childhood curiosity about Alaska or my obsession with dogs as intelligent, benevolent service animals – did you know Saint Bernards used to be sent out to rescue those lost in the snow? – but this movie had a lot of re-play value in our household. It definitely served as a firm platform in my campaign for our family to get a dog, even though none of us were too much at risk for getting blizzard-stranded in southeastern Ohio.

Balto tells the story of a half-wolf, half-dog who steps up to help lead a team of sled dogs on a mission to bring medicine to sick children in the middle of a snow storm. In 1925, a diphtheria epidemic struck Nome, Alaska, and a team of dogs was sent to another town called Nenana to pick up a shipment of Antitoxin to treat the ill. In real life, this distance is almost 700 miles, but the movie takes some creative liberties, of course. (Example: The real-life Balto was a purebred husky, and he only led the last leg of the journey.) Historical inaccuracies aside, this movie is pretty great. I re-watched it to celebrate its 20th anniversary, and here’s what I took away from it.

The character voices are awesome

 First off, when I was watching this 20 years ago, I didn’t know Kevin Bacon is the voice of Balto – Right? Tuck that little nugget away for the next time you and your friends are playing Six Degrees of Separation. Bridget Fonda is the voice of Jenna (another dog) and Bob Hoskins voices a Russian goose who provides much of the movie’s comic relief. However, the most delightful casting choice is Phil Collins as the voice of both Muk and Luk, a pair of polar bear cubs who’ve been shunned by their own kind because they’re afraid of water. Don’t question why an Alaskan polar bear has an English accent – just revel in it. Side note: Not having Collins on the James Horner-scored soundtrack feels like such a lost opportunity.

There really is a Balto statue

 Maybe you New York natives knew this, but I didn’t – the statue shown in the live action sequences at the start and end of the film really does live in Central Park. It’s been there since 1925, the same year of Balto’s amazing journey.

Balto is funnier than I remember

 Maybe I was a serious kid, but I didn’t remember this movie as a comedy. I’m a 29-year-old adult woman but this movie had me laughing out loud a lot more than I expected. If you’ve got kids, or nieces and nephews, this is one you can watch with them and still get something out of yourself. Oh, and here’s a little Easter egg for you – keep your eyes peeled for the E.T. reference I missed in 1995.

The voice of Steele sure sounds familiar

This isn’t a Disney-affiliated film, but one of the voice actors is a Disney mainstay. Jim Cummings lent his voice to villain and rival dog sled leader Steele in 1995, but before and after, he served roles in tons of Disney franchises, including The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and Pocahontas.

Balto is full of life lessons

 This is a story about what it feels like to be an outsider seeking acceptance. It’s about doing the right thing, even when it’s thankless work. Balto looks at the food bowl half-full and plays fair. He doesn’t give up, and by the end of the movie, he comes to terms with who he really is. It’s got layers.

Sadly, Balto isn’t on Netflix, but you can rent it on Amazon or iTunes. It’s worth the $2.99 to see this visually-stunning, underrated gem. Happy birthday, Balto!

[Image courtesy Amblin Entertainment]