Balto was the final animated feature produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblimation animation studio. Although the film's theatrical run was overshadowed by the success of the competing Pixar film, Toy Story, its subsequent strong sales on home video led to two direct-to-video sequels Balto II: Wolf Quest (2000) and Balto III: Wings of Change (2004).
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the entire movie.
Balto, a wolfdog hybrid, lives on the outskirts of Nome with his best friend, a Russian goose named Boris and two polar bears, Muk and Luk. Being half-breed, Balto is ridiculed by both dogs and humans alike; his only friend in town there is a red husky named Jenna, for whose attention Balto is challenged by the town's favorite sled dog, Steele, a fierce, overly competitive, selfish purebred Alaskan Malamute.
One night, the children of Nome (including Jenna's owner, Rosy) begin to fall ill with diphtheria. Severe winter weather conditions prevent medicine to be brought by air or sea, and the closest rail line ends in Nenana. A dog race is held to determine the best-fit dogs for a sled dog team to get the medicine. Balto enters and wins, but gets disqualified thanks to Steele.
The team departs that night with Steele in the lead and picks up the medicine successfully, but on the way back, conditions deteriorate & the disoriented team ends up stranded at the base of a steep slope with the musher knocked unconscious.
When word reaches Nome, Balto sets out in search of them with Boris, Muk, and Luk. On the way, they encounter a huge grizzly bear which attacks them. Jenna arrives to save them, but is injured in the process, prompting Balto to have Boris take her, Muk, and Luk back to Nome while he continues on alone. Balto eventually finds the stricken team, but Steele refuses his help (having lost his mind) and a fight ensues, ending with Steele falling off a cliff.
Balto takes charge of the team, but Steele, refusing to concede defeat, throws them off the trail and they lose their way again. While attempting to save the medicine from falling down a cliff, Balto himself falls. When he awakens, he has lost all hope, but when a large, white wolf appears, and he notices the medicine crate still intact nearby, he realizes that his part-wolf heritage is a strength, not a weakness, and drags the medicine back up the cliff to the waiting team.
Using his advanced senses, Balto is able to filter out the false markers Steele created. After encountering further challenges, Balto and the sled team finally make it back to Nome. A pity-playing Steele is exposed as a liar and abandoned by the rest of the dogs. Reunited with Jenna and his friends, Balto earns respect from both the dog packs and the humans and visits Rosy, who thanks him for saving her life.
Back in New York City, the elderly woman and her granddaughter find the memorial commemorating Balto, and she explains that the Iditarod trail covers the same path that Balto and his team took from Nenana to Nome. The woman (who is actually Rosy) whispers, "Thank you, Balto. I would have been lost without you", before walking off to join her granddaughter as the sun shines upon the Balto statue.
- Kevin Bacon as Balto, a young adult male wolfdog; being half-husky and half-wolf. His biological father was a Siberian husky and his biological mother, Aniu was a wild, white wolf. Jeffrey James Varab and Dick Zondag served as the supervising animators for Balto.
- Bob Hoskins as Boris, a Russian snow goose and Balto's caretaker and sidekick. Kristof Serrand served as the supervising animator for Boris.
- Bridget Fonda as Jenna, a female Husky and Rosie's pet as well as Balto's love interest. Robert Stevenhagen served as the supervising animator for Jenna.
- Juliette Brewer as young Rosy, Jenna's owner and a kind, excitable girl who was the only human in Nome who is kind to Balto. She falls ill, but Balto brings the medicine to save her and the other children. David Bowers served as the supervising animator for Rosie.
- Miriam Margolyes as old Rosie in the live-action sequences who tells her story to her granddaughter.
- Jim Cummings as Steele, an Alaskan Malamute and Balto's rival who also has a crush on Jenna. Sahin Ersöz served as the supervising animator for Steele.
- Phil Collins as Muk and Luk, a pair of polar bear cubs, Muk talks but not Luk. Nicolas Marlet served as the supervising animator for Muk and Luk.
- Jack Angel, Danny Mann and Robbie Rist as Nikki, Kaltag and Star (respectively), the members of Steele's team. William Salazar served as the supervising animator for the team.
- Sandra Dickinson as Dixie, a female Pomeranian and one of Jenna's friends who adores Steele until his lies are exposed. Dickinson also voices Sylvie, a female Afghan Hound who is Jenna's friend as well; and Rosie's mother. Patrick Mate served as the supervising animator for Sylvie and Dixie.
- Lola Bates-Campbell as Rosy's granddaughter, who appears in the live-action sequences and is accompanied by her dog Blaze, purebred Siberian Husky.
- William Roberts as Rosy's father
- Donald Sinden as a doctor
- Bill Bailey as a butcher
- Garrick Hagon as a telegraph operator
- Frank Welker as the Grizzly Bear
“Balto” was the final animated feature produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblimation animation studio before Spielberg co-founded DreamWorks (along with David Geffen & Jeffrey Katzenberg) and most of the Amblimation staff were re-located to DreamWorks Animation.
Originally, Brendan Fraser was hired to provide the voice of Steele and he recorded his part, but his voice-over was subsequently discarded and the role went to Jim Cummings instead.
The movie also marks actress Bridget Fonda's first venture into animated films, in addition to many cast members in the film.
The characters Muk and Luk were named for mukluks which is a type of Canadian footwear. The character design for Jenna was based on actress Audrey Hepburn.
- The film portrays Balto (1919–March 1933) as a gray wolfdog. In real life, Balto was a pure bred Siberian Husky and was black and white in color. Balto's colors changed to brown due to light exposure whilst on display in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The filmmakers may have chosen to differentiate Balto from the other prominent sled dog of the movie, Steele, who also had a black and white coat.
- The sled run to retrieve the medicine was a relay. Instead of being the leader of the first team, Balto was the leader of the last team to carry the medicine to Nome. The longest and most hazardous distance was traveled by the team led by Togo.
- The medicine was never driven by the dogs alone and none of the mushers were incapacitated.
- Balto was never an outcast street dog as shown in the movie, but was instead born in a kennel owned by the famous musher Leonhard Seppala, where he was trained until deemed fit for pulling a sled as the lead dog. Seppala was also the owner of Togo (1913–1929), whom he personally used to lead his dog team during the relay. He was used by one of Seppala's workers, Gunnar Kaasen.
- Balto is the only animal and the only character in the movie who is based on an actual historical figure.
- In the sequels, Balto was shown to have offspring, but in real life, he was neutered at a young age.
- In the sequels, Balto continued living in Nome along with his family and friends (the events of the third film happened in 1928), but in real life, Balto and his team were sent to the Brookside Zoo (now the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo) in 1927 where they spent their last years of life.
“Balto” ranked at #15 at the box office, grossing $1,519,755 during its opening weekend with a domestic gross of $11,348,324. Even though the film wasn’t successful at the box office, it fared better in video sales which led to the release of two direct-to-video sequels, but neither of them received strong reception unlike the original film.
The movie received mixed reviews from critics.
On Rotten Tomatoes, it was given a 50% rating based on 24 reviews. According to the site’s critical consensus: "The animation is great, but Balto's details and its plot are so-so.”
Roger Ebert gave “Balto” a positive review, describing it as "a kids' movie, simply told, with lots of excitement and characters you can care about” & also gave the film 3 out of 4 stars.
Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle called it “a plucky dog story -- especially with funny friends -- is always a winning formula for the G-rated crowd.”
However, other critics criticised the movie for its lackluster voice work (particularly from Kevin Bacon) and its storyline.
Walter Addiego of the San Francisco Examiner wrote in his review that the film “takes a genuinely appealing, inspirational story and reduces it to, at best, a passable entertainment that might please younger children” and that “older youngsters, and certainly their parents, will find it dull and drawn out, full of trite characters and situations.”
The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote in her review that the artistry of the movie “dims in comparison to that of Dogs Playing Poker.”
On Metacritic, it calculated an average score of 52/100 based on 10 reviews which indicates "mixed or average reviews”.