Before watching the movie:
When I was very young, I had a book about Balto, the heroic sled dog that saved the diptheria inoculation run from Anchorage to Nome that the Iditarod race commemorates. I don’t really recall why Balto was particularly celebrated as the hero of the relay, and it looks like this movie will not be very concerned with that.
The summary seems to indicate that the main conflict comes from how the other characters treat Balto because he is a wolfdog, but that’s not a detail I recall from the history. Apparently, the real Balto was a purebred husky, so I guess the movie’s main concern was a clumsy message about race.
Balto is a young wolfdog living outside Nome who dreams of being a champion in Nome’s active sled dog racing scene. The top dog in sledding is Steele, an entitled alpha who leads the other dogs in bullying Balto for being (part) wolf. Balto has a crush on Jenna, a young girl’s pet Husky, but Steele considers her his own, despite or because of the fact that she’s the only dog in town that isn’t taken with him. When the children in Nome, including Jenna’s girl Rosy, start becoming sick, there isn’t enough medicine in town to treat everyone, and they are in desperate need of a shipment from Anchorage. But bad weather keeps boats and planes away and the only solution is to have a sled dog team carry the shipment from the train station at Nenana, 600 miles away. Of course, Steele leads the team, but when the sled is caught in an accident that incapacitates the musher and goes missing, Balto heads out after them, for Jenna’s sake.
For the record, the real Balto’s feat was being able to stay on the trail in a snowstorm that the sledder couldn’t see a thing in, and then the entire team carried on past the point they were supposed to hand off to the next team because the next team was asleep. I’d say that’s commendable, but not really movie material, and so rather than let the legend alone, the movie instead bolsters the legend with a lot more story than previously existed.
I like to think I have a good ear for recognizing Bob Hoskins at this point. When I saw his name prominent in the credits, I thought that whether he was important or not, I’d recognize him. I’ve heard his own accent, I’ve heard him put on a few other British accents, and I’ve heard his hard-boiled American accent. But I’d never heard him do a Russian accent before, and I completely missed that he was Boris, Balto’s goose mentor. I was also surprised to see that Phil Collins voiced two other minor comic relief characters. But much more surprising was hearing Jim Cummings’ voice come out of Steele. Cummings is a talented voice actor with a lot of experience, but I would’ve thought a big-budget feature would have cast a higher-profile name for the central antagonist.
The wolfdog subplot is mainly about the “being true to yourself” message. Balto has to stop being ashamed of his heritage in order to live up to the challenge presented. And when he proves himself, his lineage stops being something anyone cares about. It’s awkward and cliché, but not as bad as a mismanaged racism moral.
This is not a movie for everyone. It’s a movie for children, and not as educational as its “based on true events” tag suggests. It further lionizes a figure that might already be inflated in stature. It’s an adventure, suggested by a few details from a historic moment.