Thursday, 10 October 2013

Balto: A Great Film Trapped Inside a Mediocre Movie

In a previous post, I mentioned that I found an immense amount to enjoy in Rod Lurie’s The Contender, but with the rather glaring exception that I found the titular protagonist insufferable. Its strong supporting cast, its excellent cinematography, its genuine fascination with the workings of politics, however – all these things in combination allowed me to look past Joan Allen’s sanctimonious heroine. The 1995 animated film Balto represents, for me, the polar opposite extreme. Here is a film where the overall work is badly riddled with problems, almost to the point of not being worth watching, but is ultimately redeemed by having an endlessly engaging and likeable hero.

Simply put, I like Balto enormously as a character. This is actually rather rare for me. As I mentioned in another previous post, I often find the heroic leads in Hollywood movies unrelatable at best, or outright hateful at worst. For one to actually win me over completely is unusual, but even a cursory look at its qualities will reveal that Balto is a very unusual film. It was the final feature  produced by Amblimation – the spin-off company of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, devoted purely to animation. The inordinate influence of the Spielberg imprimatur on 1980s pop culture has always been well-understood, but people tend to remember things like Poltergeist and The Goonies more readily than An American Tail and The Land Before Time. The latter films, however, may be more radically important, since Hollywood animation had for so long been the near-monopoly of Walt Disney Studios. By lending his immense name recognition to animated films that would break this mould, Spielberg helped expand the conceptual boundaries of what could be done with animation in the mainstream. Balto would be the penultimate project of this expansion, and its problems are those of a production which is testing the boundaries whereby an “animated film” becomes simply a film that is realized via animation.

Balto’s creators seem to have wanted to make an animated film that would be a completely de-Disney-fied, straightforward epic drama, but nonetheless panicked that audiences used to Disney films weren’t ready for such an endeavour. Unwilling to give up their serious ambitions, however, they hedged their bets by salting in an inordinate amount of cartoonish humour, of a buffoonish kind even lower than Disney’s usual tenor, in the hopes that they would leaven each other, and the final film would gel. In the event, however, this calculation failed miserably, and we are left with a movie that is partly a rare masterpiece, and partly a disposable Saturday morning cartoon. Probably the chief reason I ultimately emphasize the former, however, is that the characterization of its hero resides in the first column.

Beyond being excellently animated, about which more later, Balto is very compelling as a character. A wolf-husky hybrid, he lives on the outskirts of Nome in the hull of a wrecked ship – outside of society but still looking in. He sees the achievement and camaraderie of the sled dog teams, and the affection that the humans have for their dogs – especially the young girl Rosy, whose fiery-red husky “Jenna” he’s secretly in love with – and longs to be part of it all. His lupine blood, however, means that this society spurns him, even though his inordinate strength and speed means there’s so much he could do for it. One brilliant scene has him slinking off dejectedly to his ship, only to see a pack of wolves passing on a nearby ridge. They pause expectantly, evidently recognizing him as one of their own and inviting him to join them, but he can’t bring himself to abandon human society totally – even his own pitiful and peripheral place in it. The film’s narrative soon offers a way to cut this Gordian knot, however, when an outbreak of diphtheria means that an isolated Nome stands in need of a saviour. Balto may never have been able to be accepted, but he now has the chance to vault beyond acceptance and become revered. The severity of the threat to Nome is emphasized by a number of shots of impassable pack ice and blizzard conditions, more hyperrealistic than almost anything Disney has ever done, and a haunting shot of the local carpenter building a number of child-sized coffins. 

All this is obviously deep stuff indeed to throw at preteens, and so the film engages in what amounts to a campaign of wilful vandalism against itself. In addition to a comic sidekick – a goose named “Boris” with a heavy Russian accent – Balto is flanked by a pair of polar bears named Muk and Luk who are also ostracized from their kind because they can’t swim. Jenna, meanwhile, is given two friends named “Dixie” and “Sylvie,” who speak like Manhattan Jewish socialites. And the film’s ridiculously exaggerated villain “Steele” – the current head sled dog – is given a trio of flunkies named “Nikki,” “Kaltag,” and “Star,” who have a running shtick whereby Star effusively babbles until Kaltag shuts him up by punching him. It’s the sort of gag that works well enough in TV cartoons, but woefully undermines Balto’s best cinematic qualities.

And there are plenty of those. The film’s single greatest moment comes at the 57-minute mark, after Balto's initial attempts to lead the dogsled team seem to have failed, and he and the diptheria antitoxin have been swept off a cliff. The first image we see is of Balto shoving his head up out of the snowdrift he’s been buried in. Following that, there’s an amazing four-second shot of him pulling himself back up above ground, incredibly strongly backlit in a heroic low-angle framing. After this, however, he lies down in apparent defeat, muttering “Rosy” as he lays his paw across his snout. A cut out to a medium-long shot here reveals the film’s technically hybrid nature, inasmuch as Balto himself is still drawn with pencil and ink, but the blizzard that’s raging unforgivingly around him has obviously had a lot of help from CGI. Faced with the contrast, I still feel nostalgic for the analogue side of the equation, in spite of all the amazing things digital animation can do.

Cutting back into a close-up of Balto’s face, we hear a magical-sounding sparkling noise from offscreen. As he looks up for its source, the camera pulls back and reveals the paws of a great, mystical white wolf standing frame left, which Balto acknowledges with a look of plaintive uncertainty. It’s a great animated-acting moment from our hero, which is followed by a reverse-angle cut to a full-on majestic push-in/tilt-up shot, causing the white wolf to tower over the frame – and thus Balto, and thus us the spectators – just as he flings back his head and lets out a big, dramatic howl. Cutting back to reverse angle, we find ourselves looking over the white wolf’s shoulder, and down at Balto, who now has another brilliant acting moment, turning his head aside totally cowed and ashamed. So subtly nuanced is the animation here that, cutting in to a close-up of Balto turning away, we can really sense that this isn’t from fear so much as his own life-long inability to so totally embody his own lupine identity, the way this noble creature does. It’s an utterly Biblical “pained look away”/“I am not worthy” moment – the sort that’s de rigeur for all epic heroes.

Another reverse angle cut shows Balto’s face now facing the frame, the white wolf now behind him. Thus, we see the wolf turn away in disappointment and seem to leave, but at that very moment, Balto’s eyes suddenly focus… And a cut to his point-of-view reveals that the medicine has landed, intact, right behind him! We then cut back to a new framing of his dismayed face looking upward, at what looks like an impossibly high cliff face. At this point, Boris’s voice cuts in on the soundtrack, repeating his previous admonition that “a dog cannot make this journey alone, but maybe a wolf can.” If nothing else, this moment demonstrates that, as superfluous as the Muk/Luk/Dixie/Sylvie/Nikki/Kaltag/Star constellation of characters may be, Boris’s presence in the film is justified, inasmuch as every epic story needs its clown-sage character to offset the hero. And with the following cut, Balto does indeed move into unequivocally heroic mode, as a close-up shows his features smoothly shift from plaintive/sorrowful to iconically steely and determined (the screenshot above left doesn’t do it justice), sharply turning and facing into the blizzard defiantly, rather than defeatedly like just a moment ago.

With the next cut, we see that the white wolf has seemingly gone, but has left a trail of wolfy pawprints behind. In the familiar image of the MCU composition from earlier, we see Balto extend one of his own paws and place it in the print… and it fits perfectly. Balto has found his own kind in the great and noble creature we’ve just seen, and with this epiphany, he raises up his own head and lets out a huge, dramatic howl of his own. At this point, the “camera movement” really goes all-out, circling him 180° so that in an unbroken take, we can see the white wolf reappear and join him in his howl. This done, we then cut to a long shot of the two of them in profile, heroically twinned. All throughout this scene, meanwhile, James Horner’s epically powerful score has forbidden the viewer a single second’s possibility of dismissing things as “just a cartoon.”

I first saw this scene in the theatre in the summer of 1995, when I was nine years old, and it made such a vivid and indelible impression on me that from just that one showing that I never forgot it over the following sixteen years. Finally revisiting the film for the first time in spring of 2011, at the age of twenty-five, I was humbled to find it still worked as potently as before. Gratifyingly, someone’s uploaded the scene in its entirety on YouTube here, and the fact that it’s been viewed over 200,000 times there gives some indication of how potent a moment it is.

For whatever strange reason, this bit always puts me in mind of a plot point from The Lives of Others, where we see Dreyman coming face-to-face with the fake nationalist-propaganda play that Weisler has written to cover for him. The excerpt we hear consists of boilerplate heroism such as “Lenin is very tired, but he resolves to continue on with his revolutionary plans…” We’re supposed to condescendingly roll our eyes at the crude socialist realism earnestness of it, and its tone-deafness to any irony or nuance. And yet this great moment from Balto shows that there are always moments in dramatic art where this sort of full-bore, un-self-conscious heroism not only works, but is the only possible choice. Substitute “Balto” for “Lenin,” and “rescue effort” for “revolutionary plans,” and you pretty much have the dramaturgy of this scene. And anybody who could remain wholly unaffected by it, or dismiss it as unsophisticated, is likely the sort of glib poseur and/or hateful philistine I would never wish to have to interact with. It’s probably not a coincidence, incidentally, that The Lives of Others was one of William F. Buckley’s all-time favourite films…

The rest of the film continues in the vein of this scene, with Balto dragging the medicine up to the top of the cliff, being definitively invested with the honour and authority of head dog, and successfully leading the team across the many treacherous obstacles presented by the Alaskan wilderness. Alas, it’s not long before the film’s misconceived cartoon elements begin to work against it again. A sequence where the team has to escape a raging avalanche of snow is intense and gripping, but is undercut by the avalanche’s having been started by Star’s sneezing. Likewise, the cutaways to Steele holding court back in town, spinning his own egomaniacal, false version of events does the film few favours.

My chief take-away from Balto today basically boils down to “a great film trapped inside a mediocre movie.” The profusion of cartoonish supporting characters detracts from what works perfectly well as a straightforward epic drama, and a live-action bookend device seems to somehow trivialize even that. It’s a testament to how well the film’s better elements work, though, that in spite of its commercial failure in theatres, it would go on to become an acknowledged classic on home video. The final vindication of it in this regard would come in the early 2000s, when Universal would release not one but two direct-to-video sequels.  These films – Balto II: Wolf Quest and Balto III: Wings of Change – would mercifully dispense with the live-action bookending, and reign in the comic-supporting-character quotient dramatically. Their chief raison d’etre lay simply in giving Balto more to do as a character, whether it be trying to be a good father to his and Jenna’s six pups, encountering a new wolf pack with which he may have a history, coming out of head-dog retirement to lead a mail run, or being a hero again in rescuing a crashed pilot. It’s a gratifying example of a studio recognizing they’re onto a good thing, and going further with it.

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