The adventures of a true American hero continue.
Universal has emerged as a real leader in the family entertainment arena. From the Land Before Time series to the Beethoven movies, they have kept an active role in providing home video products suitable for children. Now they appear poised to turn the story of the heroic half wolf/half dog Balto into another family franchise.
Facts of the Case
As our tale begins, we see trusty Balto (voice of Maurice LaMarche) dealing with an all-new challenge: fatherhood. Balto and the lovely Jenna (voice of Jodi Benson—The Little Mermaid) have just had a litter of puppies. Soon the time comes to find homes for all of them with human families who will love them. All of the puppies are soon claimed except one: their daughter Aleu (voice of Lacey Chabert—Not Another Teen Movie). Aleu is different from the other puppies; while they clearly take after their mother and look like fine Huskies, Aleu takes after her father's side of the family and looks more wolfish. As a result, none of the humans want to adopt her.
Balto is also dealing with another strain. He has been experiencing strange dreams at night, with images that seem to be based on the Inuit totem poles that dot the landscape around his home. The dreams are dominated by images of a large raven, along with caribou and wolves. He has no idea what they mean.
Aleu continues to grow, living under the watchful eyes of her father. However, there soon comes a fateful day when Balto tells her about her heritage, how her grandmother on Balto's side was a wolf. Aleu doesn't take this news well at all, and runs away. Balto sets out to find her, and their adventure begins. Along the way they must face such challenges as hostile animals, a pack of wolves split between two leaders, and a "spirit guide" crystal-loving field mouse who sings really bad New-Age folk music.
Universal has done a very nice job with this disc. This studio has built up a stable of children's franchises for the home video market, and they often put more time and effort into these discs than a lot of studios do with their big budget theatrical films. The results for the most part are very good.
Balto II is presented in a full-frame, 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This is only logical, as this is a direct-to-video production. Picture quality is quite good, with brilliant colors and few visible defects. There may be a bit of edge enhancement or aliasing from time to time, but nothing that will detract from your viewing pleasure. The animation in this feature is very nicely done for this type of product. Character movements seem smooth and natural. Backgrounds are very detailed. Balto II incorporates both traditional cell animation and some CGI; this is one weakness in the visual presentation. The CGI is used for inanimate objects like totem poles, and stands out very badly in contrast with the more traditionally rendered surroundings.
The audio on this disc is very nice as well. The default option for most viewers will be the English Dolby 5.1 track; Spanish 5.1 and French 2.0 Surround are also available. The sound is very good in all registers, and makes use of some good surround and directional effects. Voices, sound effects, and music are all evenly mixed and pleasing to the ear. This is not a disc that anyone is going to use to demo their sound system, but overall the audio mix is quite satisfactory.
One of the benefits of the quality audio mix is that is allows us to enjoy the voices of the performers behind the characters. This is a particularly impressive cast, and it was nice to hear from all of them. Lacey Chabert has a very charming voice and does very nicely as Aleu. Jodi Benson is of course always a delight, and never fails to remind us why we all fell in love with Ariel the Mermaid when we were kids. This woman should sell CDs; I'd buy a recording of her doing anything—singing, reciting poetry, even reading from the phone book. Other special treats are David Carradine (Kung Fu) as the noble leader of the wolf pack, and Mark Hamill (Star Wars) as his evil rival for power.
Universal has put together a small assortment of extra material for this DVD release. Included are a "Rescue Aleu" game, a trailer, an advertisement for the Fisher-Price Rescue Heroes computer game, DVD-ROM content a link to Universal's DVD newsletter, and a Recommendations section. The "Rescue Aleu" game consists of trying to move Balto across a series of ice floes with your remote; there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to this game, and kids could get frustrated with the apparent randomness of the solution. The trailer is a nice touch, as is the Recommendations section. Instead of the normal thumbnails that Universal includes in these sections, we get four trailers for other Universal DVDs: the original Balto, Beethoven's 4th, The Land Before Time VII: The Stone Of Cold Fire, and The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze.
The advertisement for the Fisher-Price adventure heroes game is a bit more problematic. I generally frown on non-film related advertising on DVD, but I might have to make an exception here. Included in the DVD-ROM content is a demo for this game, so if you have access to a DVD-ROM drive your kids can try this game out. I guess if Universal feels the need to put commercials on their DVDs, this is the least they can do. I tried the game out, and found that it was actually kind of fun and would help build respect for everyday heroes like firefighters.
The final piece of DVD-ROM content is a section entitled "Online Features." This is basically a collection of Universal links, for various things such as Universal Home Video and the various Universal Theme Parks. All told, this is not a bad collection of supplemental material.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Still, all the care and effort that Universal puts into a disc can't overcome some very basic flaws in structure and writing. The plot develops very slowly, and it is not until almost an hour into the 76 minute running time that we understand what the point of Aleu's story will be.
Along the way, there are some moments that threaten to take the entire enterprise completely off the rails. These problems come to a head in Chapter 11, where the movie takes a serious detour into a cartoonish pastiche of New Age mysticism and Native Alaskan belief. Yes, there really is a field mouse who appears out of nowhere to be Aleu's "spirit guide." Yes, when she discovers him he is surrounded by a mass of crystals and singing loopy New Age folk music, proclaiming the need to praise "the earth mother, father sun, and sister moon." This, combined with the emphasis on the superficial, Hollywoodized elements of native culture is one of the real downfalls of the movie. It all culminates in a bizarre spoken word piece by David Carradine, which is both bizarrely mystical and an embarrassing use of his vocal talents. Now, I'm no expert on these kinds of beliefs, but these sorts of inclusions are bound to please no one. There are people who hold these things sacred; these people are bound to be put off by the shallowness of the depiction of their culture. On the other end of the spectrum will be those parents who are looking for an adventure movie for their kids to watch, not necessarily a primer on alternative spirituality. I'm guessing that neither group will be particularly pleased with what they find here.
On a more practical level, the inclusion of these elements serves to undermine the sense of danger or tension that the plot tries to build. Too many times Balto and Aleu face a fearsome foe, only to have the enemy disappear into mist at some crucial juncture.
What could have been an exciting adventure gets bogged down in a self important and unintentionally disrespectful parody of Native Alaskan spiritual beliefs. What could have been an engaging movie for kids gets bogged down in poor pacing and plotting. The talents of a very good cast have been squandered.
One final note. If you have kids of the right age for this movie, click on the Contest Link at the right. This will take you to an essay contest sponsored by Universal. If your child is creative, have him or her write an essay about their real-life heroes, and they could win cool prizes including books for their school library.
Balto II isn't a bad movie, but it's not a particularly good one, either. I find the movie and those who made it guilty of missing opportunities. However, we can always hope; knowing Universal, I've got a feeling we haven't seen the last of these characters.
We stand adjourned.
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