Monday, October 12, 2015

Balto (Amblimation, 1995)

And thus it is that we reach our final feature in the short and undistinguished life of Amblimation, and it’s a real shame, because after two shambling messes (you’ll hear about Feivel Goes West, don’t worry) they’ve finally made something that has a bit of original spark in it. It certainly has a coherent tone, which is a vast improvement in itself. This movie hints at a studio that specializes in more mature, thoughtful, realistic fare than its competitors, a Disney that followed the path of The Fox and the Hound rather than The Little Mermaid, only in a good way. Did it manage it successfully? Ehh. Mostly.





Been a while since we've had an overly busy 90s poster.

If the name rings a bell, you probably heard about it in grade school on some sort of reading assignment. The film is vaguely based on the true story of the sled dog Balto, who led the final team that brought a shipment of diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska, where an epidemic was threatening to rampage through the town’s children. Balto demonstrated remarkable talent and courage, guiding the sled through whiteout blizards when the driver couldn’t see his hands in front of his face, saving the team when the sled fell into a river, and running the final two legs of the relay when they found the final driver and his team asleep, and decided not to wait for him. While Balto and his musher, Gunnar Kaasen, didn’t drive the longest and most perilous leg of the relay (that would be Balto’s owner and trainer Leonhard Seppala and his prize dog Togo), he did perform admirably, and as the dog who delivered the medicine, got the lion’s share of the glory. Er, wolf’s share.

Then he was sold to a circus and died chained up in a little room somewhere.

Then he was taxedermied.

womp womp

But the story of Balto lived on, and in the mid-1990s, the time was right for a film adaptation. There was quite the little trend of dogsledding movies at the time, including Call of the Wild, White Fang, Iron Will, and others, so it’s no surprise Balto occurred to Spielberg as a property to develop. The fact that Balto was racing to rescue sick children also provided a key hook for the movie.

Obviously, they had to sexy up the story a little bit for the big screen, winding up with something not quite entirely resembling the truth. I mean, it was closer than Pocahontas. It was sure as hell closer than Anastasia. In the movie, Balto is not a born and raised, fully trained, purebred sled dog, he’s a stray half-wolf who runs off to help the team when they get lost, and their musher gets incapacitated. It’s also not a relay in the film, but rather one team making the whole run, so screw you, Togo.

To jump right to my usual question of “was the film story worth the changes to the real story”, I can easily say absolutely yes. The core adventure story of the rescue mission is exciting and well-animated, and the tale easily bears the addition of a love interest and a villain. The villain, Steele, is particularly good. The egotistical leader of the sled team, Steele is set up as a Gaston-type, a big and strong Miles Gloriosus who is undone by his hubris, but in a nice twist on this sort of character’s usual portrayal, his brains are what make him a threat. When Balto is being considered for the sled team, Steele tricks him into exposing his teeth, making the humans realize he’s half wolf and dismiss him. When he loses the trust of the sled team out in the woods and Balto takes over, Steele doesn’t jump on him and try to rip his throat out, he runs ahead and destroys the marks Balto left to find his way back. A clever antagonist keeps the movie interesting, and none of the things he or any of the other dogs do are things that seem particularly un-doglike, which is nice after all that Don Bluth stuff.

Not that they don't slip up occasionally.

Voices are mostly solid. Kevin Bacon delivers a very Kevin Bacony performance as Balto, in that he’s fine, but a bit out of his depth as a leading man. Bacon has had the misfortune of being a character actor with a lead’s face and body, a fate that has stricken quite a few, but he does take to voice work pretty well, even if they don’t let him do anything interesting. Bridget Fonda is more boring but less charming as his love interest. Bob Hoskins does predictably well as Balto’s mentor figure, an old Russian goose. Phil Collins plays two polar bears, one of whom speaks in words, the other in grunts and mumbles. This is very odd, as at this point, Collins was just a widely derided pop singer whose acting experience consisted of one dreadful star vehicle, a small part in a TV movie, and a cameo in Hook. I’m not complaining, though, because his voice work is so goofy and winning that I barely even noticed that the characters are useless. Veteran voice actors Danny Mann, Jack Angel, and Robbie Rist play sled dogs.

A special paragraph of credit goes to Jim Cummings as Steele. I mentioned before on this blog that Cummings brings his all to a leading movie role. This is not to discredit his fine, reliable work in TV, advertising, and bit parts, I’m just saying he knows the difference between the craft needed for a lead role in a theatrical film and the craft needed for cranking out 30 episodes of Bonkers in an afternoon. Guy’s a total pro. His voice for Steele is unlike any I’ve heard from him before. A more sly and crafty variation on his usual tough guy voice, you can hear the vanity, insecurity, and ego dripping off every syllable. Top notch work. And surprisingly sexy. Not in an “I’d like to have sex with that cartoon dog” way, though I’m sure you could find fanart in pretty short order. But one of the flaws with Beauty and the Beast is that Gaston is so shallow and obnoxious, I didn’t buy that every woman in town was into him, I don’t care how good at expectorating he is. Steele is much better at presentation.

And his coloration is way more similar to the real Balto, who can be seen above, stuffed with sawdust.

And that’s the end of the story for Amblimation. A noble idea, poorly executed, but they did pull their act together for their final feature. Balto isn’t going to top any lists any time soon, but it’s a decent, solid story with some good character work and fun action. Sure, it’s a bit cliche, and the story drags a bit toward the end, but there are far worse movies out there. Fortunately, Spielberg didn’t get out of the feature animation game entirely, but his next venture really had their work better organized. It was a little company called Dreamworks, and they’re who we’ll be looking at next.


* Other talented character actors with lead actors’ faces and bodies include Alec Baldwin, Anna Kendrick, Jeff Bridges, and James Marsden. Steve Buscemi and Stanley Tucci are lead actors with character actors’ faces and bodies. Channing Tatum is a comedy actor with an action star’s face and body. I don’t know what Taylor Kitsch is, but I think it’s time Hollywood cuts their losses on trying to figure out.

* Phil Collins was not the most inexplicable cameo in Hook. David Crosby and Jimmy Buffett are on the pirate crew, the bearded pirate Hook shoves into the “Boo Box” is Glenn Close, the kissing couple on the bridge are George Lucas and Carrie Fisher, and for some insane reason, Julia Roberts plays Tinker Bell.

I see that bear gets his highlights done at the same place as Venom.

* I can’t describe how pleased I am that the dogs were not depicted wearing random articles of clothing like some Don Bluth nonsense. But two of them did have purple fur.

* There’s a live-action framing sequence featuring Miriam Margolyes as one of the kids Balto saved, now an old woman taking her granddaughter around Central Park looking for the Balto statue. While there is a Balto statue in central park, it was a bit odd to open in New York City. Still, better than them wandering around a museum in Ohio looking for Balto’s taxedermied body.

"They couldn't even bring me back to Alaska?"

* Especially since the real Balto had distinctive markings that don’t resemble the cartoon one at all.

* Speaking of old British actors, I totally forgot to mention that one of the “additional voices” in the last movie was Downton Abbey’s own Jim Carter. Not that big a deal, but you know how I love seeing names I recognize in “additional voices”.

* At one point, the goose is standing by a window, and a butcher reaches out, grabs him by the neck, drags him inside, and tries to chop his head off. Without killing him first, or cleaning him, or anything. I question this butcher’s planning abilities and butching skill. Zero stars, would not shop again.

"You know I wouldn't be here if I hadn't done Super Mario Brothers two years ago, right? The offers start drying up after a turd like that."

* I’m just saying, when that chef tried to cook Sebastian in The Little Mermaid, he was cooking crabs anyway, and Sebastian was on his table, so he was a lot more justified.

* The lead animator for Balto, a former Disney jobber named Jeffrey Varab, made this movie the same year he animated the lead character in Casper, which is actually a HUGE milestone in filmmaking. Casper was the first CGI lead character in a movie (any movie, not just live action. Beat Toy Story by six months), and the first CGI character to interact realistically with human actors. I assume he finds that more a feather in his cap than the pretty okay dog movie, but I don’t presume to speak for him.

* Hey, you know in a movie when a guy shows a lady something pretty, and she says it’s beautiful, and he looks at her and says yes it is? Can we never do that again? It’s the worst.

* At one point, the goose says he was so scared, he got people bumps. Heh.

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