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Western Animation / Balto

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"Not a dog. Not a wolf. All he knows is what he's not."

"Let me tell you something, Balto. A dog cannot make this journey alone... but maybe a wolf can."

Balto is a 1995 animated movie produced by Steven Spielberg, based loosely on the 1925 serum run to Nome. It was the third and final feature produced by Spielberg's animation studio, Amblimation. It is directed by Simon Wells with the screenplay by Cliff Ruby, Elana Lesser, David Steven Cohen and Roger S. H. Schulman and the story by Ruby and Lesser.

The plot involves a large number of children in Nome, Alaska who are sick with diphtheria. The only way to get life-saving medicine to the remote town is through a team of sled dogs. When the capable but completely self-absorbed lead dog, Steele (voiced by Jim Cummings), gets his team lost, saving the town falls on the shoulders (so to speak) of a wolf-dog hybrid named Balto (voiced by Kevin Bacon). He's accompanied by a Russian goose named Boris (voiced by Bob Hoskins), a female Husky named Jenna (voiced by Bridget Fonda), and two hydrophobic polar bears named Luk and Muk (voiced by Phil Collins).

It spawned two Direct to Video sequels: Balto II: Wolf Quest (2002) and Balto III: Wings of Change (2004).

Balto provides examples of:

  • Acrophobic Bird: Boris is rarely seen flying, even when it would be helpful to do so. In the third film it's finally explained that he is a literal acrophobic bird.
  • Action Girl: Jenna. When she realizes Balto set out to find the lost sled team, she follows. When she eventually shows up, it's by attacking a bear to protect Balto.
  • Adaptation Species Change: Balto being a wolf-dog hybrid was invented for the film. The real Balto was a purebreed husky.
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: The real Balto had black fur, not grey.
  • Adapted Out: The husky Togo was lead sled dog in the actual event, but is nowhere in the movie.
  • All Animals Are Dogs: Luk and Muk dispense licks to Balto and Boris at several points in the movie.
  • All of the Other Reindeer:
    • Most of the local dogs (with Steele as the ringleader), as well as the humans, have a very low opinion of Balto, because he's part wolf.
    • Averted on the part of the wolves. A local pack surveys Balto from a hilltop, howls cordially, and seems interested in him, but Balto turns away.
  • Alternate Animal Affection: Balto takes a page out of The Lion King (1994)'s book and has Balto and Jenna nuzzle the other's neck as a substitute for a hug or a kiss. They also accidentally bump noses a couple of times, and it's treated like an Accidental Kiss.
  • …And That Little Girl Was Me: The Framing Device for the movie is a grandmother telling her granddaughter the story of Balto while searching for Balto's statue in Central Park. At the end of the movie, they find the statue, and the grandmother says to it, "Thank you, Balto. I would've been lost without you," revealing that she was the same "Rosy" from the story.
  • Anger Born of Worry: Boris to Balto, all the time. Muk and Luk think his anger at them is due to this, but he mostly just finds them annoying.
  • Animal Talk: The humans can't understand the animals, but the dogs can understand English perfectly well. Among the animal cast, Muk is generally the only one who can understand his brother Luk's mumbling, but Boris finds, to his dismay, that he's beginning to learn it himself.
  • Anti-Sneeze Finger: Nikki does this to Star to prevent triggering a cave-in, his previous sneeze having caused an avalanche. Unlike most other examples, it actually stops the sneeze permanently instead of resulting in a giant sneeze when the finger is removed. Not that it matters much since the cave-in is soon afterward triggered by the sled thudding hard on the cave's uneven icy floor.
  • Artistic License – Biology: Realistically, Muk and Luk couldn’t live in the woods around Nome, since polar bears mostly inhabit the frozen Arctic sea during winter and only travel to the northernmost fringes of Eurasia and North America during the summer months, with the nearest Alaskan polar bears living a good 500 miles away from Nome. Furthermore, polar bears evolved to depend on a largely marine diet, especially on prey animals rich in fat such as seals, and tend to struggle literally living off the land, which is why many individuals starve to death during the summer months. Worst still, Balto 2 shows them still hanging around Nome in spring.
  • Artistic License – History: Pretty much everything in the movie is wrong about the real Balto.
    • For one thing, there were about twenty sled teams, and Balto didn't even run the most dangerous part, he just ran the last leg. Balto getting the most fame and praise for his heroism — it was widely agreed upon that Togo should have gotten the credit, which Togo tried to address — is actually part of a longstanding controversy that this movie actually made worse.
    • Balto's coloring was, ironically, much closer to Steele's in Real Life, to the point where if you knew nothing about this film, you'd think Steele was Balto and vice-versa.
      • This, too, had a modern redress in popular culture, with an episode about Balto in Molly of Denali illustrated with his correct fur pattern.
    • Balto — and Togo, for that matter — had no wolf ancestry; they were completely purebred Siberian Huskies.
    • Arguably the worst, however, is the complete omission of not just Togo but their driver, Leonhard Seppala, who was hailed as a hero and was for a good while one of the most famous men in Alaska and, briefly, the United States.
  • Asskicking Leads to Leadership: Steele, and to a lesser extent, Balto, to the rest of the sled dogs. This is another inaccuracy, because the choosing of a lead dog on mushing teams was something done very carefully by the dog-driver, and never left to chance (which it certainly is in the movie).
  • Award-Bait Song: "Reach for the Light", which plays during the credits, is performed by Steve Winwood and co-composed by James Horner.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Balto taking over as lead dog is a brief one, but no less awesome for it. Star's presenting of the harness and the swell of the music is very poignant.
  • Bears Are Bad News: Balto gets attacked by a giant grizzly at one point. Averted with Muk and Luk, though they still manage to be a handful sometimes for Boris.
  • Beary Funny: Muk and Luk, the polar bears, mainly serve the role of Plucky Comic Relief.
  • Big Damn Heroes:
    • Balto pulls this to rescue Steele's team by trekking out into the wilderness on his own to find them. Steele is less than receptive.
    • Jenna, who attacks a bear about to kill Balto and saves his life.
  • The Big Damn Kiss: Big Damn Nuzzle: Balto and Jenna get one at the end in lieu of a kiss, but it's played out just as dramatically.
  • Big Ol' Eyebrows: Balto and Boris have fairly bushy brows.
  • Blatant Lies: Steele's story regarding Balto and the medicine once he gets to the boiler room. In particular, he claims to have carried four dogs on the sled and three on his back — he then does a quick, private calculation on his claws, probably vaguely aware of the fact that there were only six dogs other than himself. Jenna knows that Balto would never do such a thing and doesn't fall for his story, not one bit.
  • Book Ends: The movie begins with a live-action scene, and ends with one.
  • Braving the Blizzard: Severe winter weather conditions are what prevent the antitoxin cure for diphtheria from reaching Nome, Alaska by sea and air — and the nearest rail station is 600 miles away in Nenana. A sled dog team is put together to retrieve the antitoxin, but as the weather worsens the team becomes lost. Canine hero Balto sets off through the terrible snowstorm to find the lost sled dog team and lead them back to Nome safely.
  • Brush-Off Walk-Off: When Balto succeeds in bringing the sled team home with the diphtheria antitoxin, all of Nome's dogs realize that Steele has been telling them bald lies. They already knew Steele was a Glory Hound, but this is a blatant dereliction of duty, which is unforgivable by dog standards. All the dogs turn up their noses and turn their tails toward Steele, and leave the storage barn silently. Steele has become a disreputable pariah in their view.
  • Butt-Monkey:
    • Star. If the poor pup so much as opens his mouth, he WILL get hurt, be it the other dogs or even inanimate objects. Except for his final scene at the end.
    • Boris also suffers more than his fair share of slapstick, as do the polar bears.
  • Canine Confusion:
    • Balto's Adaptational Species Change results in him being an unusually tame stray, bordering on feral, wolf-dog. The narrative treats it as Half-Breed Discrimination that all the humans are scared of Balto, however real wolf-dogs are notoriously risky (nevermind ones not reared by humans). The real Balto was a purebred pet husky (or a malamute, depending on the source).
    • Jenna is a red husky. While this is a color allowed by the Breed Standard, red huskies are more brownish than Jenna's dark red.
    • Steele is an Alaskan malamute with Icy Blue Eyes. However, malamutes cannot have blue eyes. Malamutes only have brown eyes.
  • Cartoony Tail: Balto has the common, taper off-to-a-point variety.
  • Cassandra Truth:
    • Early on in the film, Rosy's father disregards her when she protests his discrimination against Balto.
    • Jenna gets blown off by the other dogs when she calls out Steele on his Blatant Lies.
  • Casting Gag: Bob Hoskins voiced Boris in the first movie, only to be replaced by Charles Fleischer in the sequels. In other words, Boris is voiced by both Eddie Valiant and Roger Rabbit.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The bottles Balto shows Jenna that he uses to create his own aurora borealis. Jenna uses those same bottles to guide the sled team home after everyone else has given up.
  • Covers Always Lie: The DVD cover (as seen on this page) depicts Balto as black and gray in contrast to the movie, where he's brown and cream. (Ironically, the real Balto did have black and white fur, so the poster is more historically accurate than the movie.) The cover of the reissue tried to fix this by giving him a more accurate color scheme, but also slips up by showing him with white sclerae (he actually has yellow) and giving him a too broad muzzle and nose.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Steele is displeased, to put it mildly, when he catches on to the fact that Jenna prefers Balto over him. This only makes him even more hateful of Balto, to the point that he sabotages his own team in an effort to ensure Balto can't succeed in leading them home.
  • Collective Death Glare: After being defeated by Balto and thrown off a cliff, Steele returns to Nome claiming that the wolf-dog made a Face–Heel Turn and left the sled dog team to die in the wilderness. When Balto returns home safe and sound with both Steele's squad and the medicine supplies, Steele's lie immediately catches up to him and even one of his greatest admirers (a Spitz she-dog named Dixie) is horrified by his deceit. She slaps a bone off his mouth, which lands in front of the entrance of the city's main boiler room (the main hub of Nome's dogs) and the very group of (understandably pissed off) dogs which used to admire Steele at the very beginning of the movie.
  • Darkest Hour: Oh, this movie has a doozie. Shortly after Balto takes over the sled team, Steele marks every tree on the way to get them lost. Balto has a momentary Freak Out and runs too fast, which results in him and the medicine falling off a dark and seemingly endless cliff. The town shortly thereafter gives up hope of getting the medicine they need to save the children, and put out all their lights one by one.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Boris tends to be this, especially when dealing with Balto's antics or Muk and Luk's tomfoolery.
  • Determinator: Nothing will stop Balto from bringing the medicine to the children of Nome—not Steele, not the harsh Alaskan wilderness, and not dangerous treks through frozen caves.
  • Disney Villain Death: Subverted. Steele accidentally causes himself to fall off a very high cliff while fighting with Balto but survives likely due to hitting several ledges on the way down instead of a sheer drop. Averted at the end of the movie, however, where Steele survives the movie's events and is reduced to an outcast once his crimes are finally exposed. Balto also suffers a subverted one later, surviving due to deep snow.
  • The Dog Bites Back: A Deleted Scene had Star, the henchman that Steele treated the worst, do this. He tore off Steele's collar (which was a racing prize he'd won) because he didn't deserve it.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Balto earns his big time. He started the movie the hated outcast who was constantly being chased away from the one he loved, with the movie's Jerkass Big Bad trying to ruin his life, and being unable to accept himself as a dog or a wolf. He has to go on an epic adventure through a blizzard, facing horrible danger at every single turn, and ultimately getting the tar beaten out of him by Steele, but in the end, he saves the entire town and is honored as a hero. On top of that, he finally accepts what he is and manages to get the love of his life. Sure, the next film shows there are some dogs who still make fun of him for his wolf half, but his life is a lot happier than it was.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The film opens with Steele running a neck-in-neck sled dog race, charge into a dangerously narrow pass against his musher and teammate's warning, and then, when he realizes he still can't out-run his opponent on his own merit, snaps his jaws at a dog from the other team knowing he'll flinch and thus cause the entire team to tangle up and turn over. The musher of the opposing sled then yells out an enraged "STEELE!", showing that he has done this before. The whole scene shows what lengths Steele will go just to win.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The sled team, at first supportive of Steele's fight and wagering against Balto, decide it's going too far when he actually bites Balto, and react with horror when Steele violently knocks the crate full of fragile jars of anti-toxin over in his rage. For all their flaws, they clearly cared more about getting the medicine through than Steele ever did.
    Kaltag: (after Steele violently bites Balto) That can't be legal!
    (The fight continues as Steele knocks over the crate)
    Nikki: Hey! That stuff is fragile, there!
    Star: What's with Steele? All Balto wants to do is help!
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: Steele is beloved as the town hero among the dogs and the leader of his team, but is in actuality a conceited and selfish Glory Hound who's not as good at racing as he seems.
  • Family-Unfriendly Violence:
    • The bear attack nearly leaves Balto dead.
    • Steele's beatdown of Balto after suffering from the 'get extremely violent' form of Villainous Breakdown.
  • Fatal Flaw: Steele's pride and wrath, both of which ultimately ruin him completely.
  • Feather Fingers: Boris and later Stella in Balto III: Wings of Change sometimes use their wings like hands whenever they gesture.
  • Fee Fi Faux Pas: Boris tells Balto "You will die like a dog! Ooh... no offense..." while trying to talk him out of going after Steele and his team.
  • Find the Cure!: Balto's quest revolves around him delivering the diphtheria antitoxin to Nome ASAP.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: The angsty and self-doubting Balto is melancholic, the kind and compassionate Jenna is phlegmatic, the Grumpy Old Man Boris is choleric, and the Plucky Comic Relief Muk and Luk are sanguine.
  • Free-Range Pets: A bunch of dogs are allowed to walk around town on their own without anyone batting an eye. Balto is the exception because he looks more wolf than dog.
  • Freeze Sneeze: When Balto is trapped and drowning in icy water and Muk and Luk dive in to rescue him, Boris sticks his head underwater to look for them, and comes up with his head incased in ice. Then he sneezes and the ice shatters.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: Nikki, Kaltag and Star are Steele's yes-dogs in his presence, but the moment he's out of earshot they insult him behind his back, and they ultimately leave him for Balto.
  • Funny Background Event: Early on in the movie, as Jenna, Sylvie, and Dixie are talking, a passing husky eyes them up and has to have his leash yanked by his owner. This Husky is supposedly modeled after an unused character design for Balto himself.
  • Game-Breaking Injury: After the fight with the bear, Jenna is revealed to have injured her leg in the fight and can't continue, despite having been running just before. Justified, though, as Balto had nearly drowned, and in real life someone's adrenaline would've kept them from succumbing to the pain right away.
  • Gender Equals Breed: Realistically averted. Balto is half dog, half wolf, and treated as such. According to the sequel, it's his mother who was a wolf — this is heavily implied in the first film too, as Steele tells Balto at one point that he has a message for his mother, then proceeds to wolf-howl in a mockingly exaggerated way.
  • Girls Stare at Scenery, Boys Stare at Girls: When Balto shows Jenna his simulation of the aurora borealis through use of a bunch of colorful broken bottles and a lantern, she remarks that it's beautiful. He agrees while staring at her, leading to them almost touching noses before they hear noises overhead (above the floorboards that they're hiding under).
  • Glory Hound: Steele, literally. Jenna even calls him one at a certain point.
  • Go On Without Me: Jenna's injury is what leads to Balto going on alone, as she insists he leave her behind, and he then insists that Muk, Luk and Boris take her back to the safety of town instead of going with him.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: After Steele realizes Jenna's falling for Balto, his dislike for him grows from simple bullying to pure hatred.
  • Groin Attack: At one point, Jenna tricks Steele into backing up into the boiler and singeing himself under the tail. Since he's a dog, his buttocks aren't the most important thing he's packing back there.
  • Grumpy Old Man: Boris is a grouchy and somewhat cantankerous goose who's a fair bit older than Balto.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: Balto is bullied by the other dogs for being part wolf.
  • Heel Realization: Nikki, Kaltag and Star get theirs upon witnessing Steele callously endanger the medicine just to pick a fight with Balto, as well as brutally attacking him like a crazed lunatic. They start having sympathy for the wolf-dog because of this, and after Steele falls off a cliff, they promptly abandon him and follow Balto instead.
  • Heroic BSoD: Balto gets one when he realizes Steele has marked every tree in the forest to prevent them from getting home, and he doesn't know the way.
  • Heroic Dog: Balto proves he's this when he sets out to find Steele's team to help bring home the medicine, and eventually succeeds.
  • Heroic Resolve: Balto gets this when he realizes that he should be proud of his wolf half and it allows him to pull the medicine all the way up the cliff he fell down to safety.
  • Historical Downgrade: The unnamed musher of Steele's team is knocked unconscious when the sled falls down an icy slope, and stays passed out for the rest of the journey home. It should probably go without saying that the man on the real serum run, Leonhard Sappala, was a proactive guide to his dogs.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: While it only defeats him temporarily, Steele attempts to pull Balto over a cliff by pulling at Jenna's bandana around his neck, but ends up falling himself when it loosens.
  • Hourglass Plot: At the beginning, Balto is an outcast who's feared and hated for his wolf heritage, while Steele is a Jerk Jock who has the entire town eating out of his paws. After Steele sabotages his team's effort to get back into town though, and Balto ends up bringing the medicine home, Balto is lauded as a hero for decades after his death, while Steele is shunned for his callousness.
  • Humiliation Conga: Steele gets one near the closing of the first film. He ends up getting lost in a blizzard and having the very dog he's spent the entire movie tormenting coming to try and save him. He then loses the fight without Balto attacking once, falling off a cliff. When he gets back to Nome and tries to lie to everyone, the one female in town he actually wants sees straight through his lies and calls him out on it. While he does get a small break from it, when Balto returns it really kicks in. He instantly gets a mass Death Glare from every dog in Nome, the dog who'd been trying to get his attention the entire movie slaps him in the face, he's reduced to a hated outcast by all those who'd looked up to him throughout the movie, and to top it all off, the one he hates most is now the town hero. A deleted scene would've carried this a tad further where the dog on the sled team he'd treated worst told him off and tore his prized Golden Collar off. Another deleted scene would have had his role in the story end with him falling down a coal shaft, presumably to a genuine Disney Villain Death.
  • I Am What I Am: Only when Balto learns to embrace his wolf heritage does he realize there is nothing he can't do.
  • I Can Explain: Steele says the words verbatim when the other dogs turn against him after Balto and the team return with the medicine, proving his story about their deaths was all a lie. Naturally, they shun him.
  • Ill-Timed Sneeze: Star sneezes in the first film, resulting in an avalanche.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: The kids in town get diphtheria. The trope is slightly subverted because most of them survive. The cough is actually a real symptom of Diphtheria, caused by toxin and fluid filling the lungs.
  • Internalized Categorism: Balto dislikes his wolf heritage as much as the town due to being rejected and bullied for it, and tries to distance himself from his wolf heritage as much as possible (from shunning a passing pack's friendly greeting, to grimacing when Boris tells him that "maybe, a wolf can" survive the journey). It isn't until he's able to embrace his wolf side that he's able to save the town.
  • Intimate Healing: After Balto is pulled from a frozen lake, Jenna keeps him warm by curling up around him.
  • Irony: At the beginning of the film, Steele was the town hero and Balto the hated outcast. At the end of the film, Balto is the town hero and loved by everyone while Steele, due to his own lies, is now the hated outcast.
  • Ironic Fear: Muk and Luk are afraid of the water. They mention that it's the reason they are shunned by the other polar bears. Even more funny is that while they are still cubs, they are utterly terrified of the grizzly bear that attacks them halfway through the first movie. In reality polar bears grow up to be much larger than grizzlies and are far more aggressive.
  • Karmic Shunning: At the end of the film, the Nome residents abandon Steele once the latter's crimes are exposed.
  • The Lady's Favor: Jenna gives Balto her red bandana when they part ways on his quest. Steele is only able to convince Jenna - briefly — that Balto's dead by showing her said bandana, knowing that she would believe Balto would never part with it otherwise.
  • Lap Pillow: As Rosy's parents hold vigil at her bedside near the end of the film, her father is sleeping with his head in his wife's lap.
  • Large Ham:
    • Steele is prone to dramatics and decidedly unsubtle about how highly he thinks of himself. But then, it's Jim Cummings — no one expected otherwise.
    • Star tends to get loud and carried away with his excitement, which Kaltag usually Dope Slaps him for.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: By Humiliation Conga, Steele's defeat is directly brought about by his own actions. Had he just helped Balto get back to Nome, he'd have gotten fame (Balto would've gotten more, but he still would have received some nonetheless), but by betraying and lying to the entire town, he ended up becoming a hated outcast.
  • Lecherous Licking: Steele licks his lips while leering at Jenna.
  • Light Equals Hope:
    • The telegraph station at the edge of town has a red lantern lit outside its door that acts as a guide light for the final dog team, and to signal the townsfolk that the team has attained its checkpoints en route. After many hours without a message from the nearest checkpoint, nor any sight or sound of the finishing team, the telegrapher sadly extinguishes the lantern, believing the antitoxin relay has failed.
    • And then, after the telegrapher extinguishes the lantern, and the rest of the town turn out their lights in defeat, Jenna sets up a number of colorful broken bottles and a lantern before a hill outside of town, so it can mimic the aurora borealis, symbolizing how she is the only one who still has hope that Balto will come home.
  • Liminal Being: Balto is both a wolf and a dog, or, from another point of view, neither.
  • Love at First Sight: Implied. When Balto first sees Jenna at the sled race in the beginning, the camera lingers for a good few seconds on his face as he stares at her while smiling.
  • Made of Iron: How Steele survived falling down a tall mountain side, slamming into several shelves on the way down, with no visible injury, is anyone's guess. Clearly the film needed him to be the villain for a while longer, or the poor bastard would have been dead within the first impact.
  • Malaproper: Dixie, especially when she wants to impress Steele: for example, saying "magnesium" instead of "magnificent."
  • Malicious Misnaming: Steele calls Balto "Bingo" toward the start of the film.
  • Manly Tears: When Balto reaches his Despair Event Horizon after falling off a cliff along with the crate of medicine, he covers his face with his paws and sobs softly. That is, until the appearance of the white wolf spirit and the memory of Boris's words of encouragement give him his Heroic Second Wind.
  • Meet Cute: Balto bumps noses with Jenna accidentally when they first meet.
  • The Mentor: Believe it or not, Boris the goose. He imparts words of wisdom to Balto that become vital in his moment of need.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: Downplayed. Nome is slightly too far south in Alaska for polar bears like Muk and Luk.
  • Monochrome Casting: Averted, actually. While the principal human characters are white, at least half the extras are obviously comprised of native Alaskans. One little girl (and her family) can even be seen among the recovering children during the film's closing segments. This is actually Truth in Television - Nome had a very sizable native population, and the surrounding areas were also affected. (Some think even more so.)
  • Mother Russia Makes You Strong: Boris invites himself on Balto's quest to go get the medicine on account of this.
    Balto: Wait a minute. Now you're coming?
    Boris: (dramatically) Spending days in bitter cold, facing wild animals, risking death from exposure... (chuckles fondly) Is like holiday in old country.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Seems to be part of Steele's motivation at the end. When he returns to town after he sabotages the return of the sled team, he tells Jenna that Balto is dead, and made him promise to take care of her before he died. Even returning her bandana she had given Balto, and that Steele had torn off in rage, as proof. She sees right through him.
  • Narcissist: Steele. Jenna sums it up best talking with Dixie:
    Dixie: Do you think Steele will notice?
    Jenna: I'm afraid the only way Steele will notice anyone is if they're wearing a mirror.
  • Nice Guy: Despite his mistreatment by the town, Balto is loyal and selfless to a fault.
  • Noble Wolf: Balto is a noble wolf-dog but his problems are caused by being stereotyped as a Savage Wolf. The townfolk believe him to be dangerous ("He might bite you, honey. He's part wolf.") when he's truly a Nice Guy and a loyal friend.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Balto suffers one from Steele after his Villainous Breakdown. Justified, as Balto refuses to fight out of fear of destroying the anti-toxin.
  • No Name Given: The man conducting the serum run with the dogs is never named. Presumably, he's supposed to be Leonhard Seppala, who delivered the serum in the real Great Race of Mercy, though he doesn't really resemble him.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: While going through a dark forest on their quest to find the sled team, Balto suddenly hears sounds and gets a bad feeling. Viewers are given the POV of whatever is following them watching Balto from afar, the only sound present being faint breathing. Trying to brush it off, Balto takes another step before hearing sounds again as he turns and barely catches the glimpse of something huge hiding behind some trees. By the time a giant grizzly does show up about a minute later, most kids had probably already pissed themselves.
  • Official Couple: Balto and Jenna become a couple at the end after he returns with the medicine. The sequels focus on two of their offspring.
  • Oh, Crap!: Boris gets a major one (complete with gulping) when he sees the bear after backing up into it and feeling something furry behind him.
  • Only Sane Man: Rosy among humans, Jenna among the dogs. Rosy is the only human who knows that Balto isn't dangerous just for being part wolf. Jenna is the only denizen of the town (besides Balto) not to worship the snow Steele kicks up just for being the fastest runner. She's also the only dog to see through Steele's story regarding Balto and the medicine.
  • Out-of-Character Alert: Steele very briefly convinces Jenna that Balto is dead by showing her the bandanna she gave him, but immediately blows it by saying that Balto "made me promise to take care of you." Jenna knows that Balto would say no such thing, and she immediately sees straight through Steele's Blatant Lies.
  • Parental Bonus: While nothing actually happens between Balto and Jenna when he shows her the crawlspace under the hospital, Sylvie's commenting on it certainly makes it sound as if she believes otherwise. It's likely to go over the heads of younger viewers, but it's pretty clear to adults what she's alluding to:
    Sylvie: "She (Jenna) was seen in the boiler room the other night with Balto, and they went in together and they left together."
  • Prematurely Marked Grave: Played completely seriously. After word reaches Nome that Steele's sled team has been lost, Balto comes across the town carpenter building coffins for all the sick children.
  • Product Delivery Ordeal: A sudden spread of diphtheria is endangering the lives of many children in Nome, including a girl who has befriended the protagonist. A large supply of medicine is planned to be sent to Nome, and due to severe weather conditions, the only possible way to do the delivery is via sled transport. But the sled dogs get stranded and it's up to Balto and his friends to finish the job. The dogs' leader (Steele) runs away out of arrogance, so Balto is the one who guides the remaining dogs across the remainder of the path (including a perilous ice cavern with falling stalactites).
  • Prohibited Hero Saves the Day: Balto is not taken or wanted on the medicine run (in spite of having been the fastest canine in a race) because he's half-wolf. He tracks down the sled team and leads them home after his rival, Steele, gets them lost.
  • Protagonist Title: Balto is the name of the protagonist and the film.
  • Pulling Your Child Away: The titular hero is reimagined as half-husky, half-wolf and Nome's resident outcast. When Rosie, a local girl and the mistress of Balto's crush Jenna, tries interacting with him, her father pulls her away and warns her not to interact with the half-wolf. An undaunted Rosie protests they're hurting his feelings and happily hugs Balto later on when he's let into her sickroom after saving the town children from diphtheria.
  • Quirky Miniboss Squad: Nikki, Kaltag and Star in the first movie. Nuk, Yak and Sumac in the 2nd. Both squads get better.
  • Redheads Are Ravishing: A canine example. Balto's Love Interest Jenna has vivid red fur, and is designed to be the most beautiful out of the female dogs shown in Nome.
  • Ridiculously Cute Critter: Muk and Luk are cuddly, goofy-looking polar bear cubs.
  • Rule of Drama:
    • The reason Balto is a wolfdog in the movie while he was a purebred Siberian husky in real life: the creators wanted to make him an outcast among humans and other dogs alike and to give him an inner turmoil by having him be ashamed of his wolf half, making his victory all the sweeter in the end.
    • As mentioned above, both adults and children where infected in the real event, but the film changes it to only children to play more on adult fear.
    • The medicine was also delivered to Nome by no less than a dozen mushers, who would carry it part of the way and then pass it off to the next musher, from checkpoint to checkpoint. Here, apparently only one dog team gets selected to run all 600+ miles to get the serum and then back again. Evidently, Balto rescuing and leading the one dog team on which the entire town rests its hopes back into Nome makes for more dramatic story-telling than Balto simply helping one team in a long chain of mushers make their next checkpoint. (Or just carrying it for the last stretch like he did in real life.)
  • Rump Roast: When Steele barges in on Jenna and Balto in the boiler room to make unwanted advances on Jenna, she tricks him into backing up against the boiler door and burning himself so she and Balto can escape. Unfortunately, they barely make it out the door before Steele crashes through it after them.
  • Running Gag: Star finishing Kaltag's sentences and getting punched for it. At one point he sees what's coming and punches himself before Kaltag gets to it.
  • Running Gagged: Comes in at the end where he finishes Kaltag's admiration speech of Balto by adding "They should build a statue of him!" Cue Kaltag looking like he's about to punch him as usual, making Star cower, but then Kaltag smiles and says " said it."
    Star: ...I did?
  • Russian Guy Suffers Most: Boris the Russian snow goose has the Butt-Monkey status in this film.
  • Sarcastic Devotee: Boris again, to Balto. He snarks at Balto for being brash (and calls him an idiot for responding to Steele's taunts), but loyally stays at his side and gives him valuable advice.
  • Say My Name: Balto is fond of uttering Jenna's name like it's the most important thing in the world. It's very cute.
  • Scared of What's Behind You: When Boris is lecturing the polar bears, he thinks he's getting through to them when they start looking afraid... then he bumps into the huge grizzly bear that had been the real source of their fear.
  • Scenery Porn:
    • Basically all of Alaska, and also the scene where some of the medicine breaks onto the ice and scatters golden serum everywhere.
    • Also hard to not be overtaken by the sheer beauty of the Northern Lights throughout the movie.
  • Scooby Stack: Done briefly by the dogsled team, in two groupings, after a near-miss caused by a loose stalactite.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Famous!: Steele is the most popular sled dog in Nome, which means he's able to cheat his way and not get called out for it. At least not until the end.
  • Shipper on Deck: When Rosie sees Balto outrace Steele to retrieve her hat, she teases him about doing something that insane to show off for a pretty girl and begins putting him into the harness as she tells him she's sure Jenna would like having him on her team.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: Boris, Muk, and Luk help Jenna return to Nome after she's injured saving Balto from the grizzly bear, leaving Balto on his own to help the sled team and recover the medicine for the final third of the film.
  • Shout-Out:
    • In the ice cave, Star ends up looking through a bunch of icicles that distort his features. The last one makes him look like ET (another Spielberg property), complete with voice.
    • When Steele brings a string of sausage links by to woo Jenna, he suggests she start on one end and he on the other and that they meet in the middle and see where it goes, putting aside what he's getting at, he's clearly trying to re-enact the spaghetti-eating scene from Lady and the Tramp.
  • Shown Their Work: The animation of the dogs running, including muscle and fur movement, is done gorgeously through a big portion of the film. Bonus points for it all being hand drawn. The makers also studied snowstorms to make them look realistic in the film. Just about everything in this movie is well-researched, from dog sledding to Morse messages to the antiquated medicine bottles in the doctor's office. They also put special attention into the symptoms and progression of diphtheria, to rather terrifying effect.
  • Siding with the Suffering: Star, Nikki and Kaltag happily brownnose Steele and join in his bullying of Balto (though not as obsessively) for the first half of the movie, mocking his half-wolf status and in Nikki's case knocking him down during the race to see who'd be the best lead dog to retrieve the medicine. However, once Balto finds the team after Steele got them lost and Steele starts attacking Balto unprovoked no less and almost breaking the medicine that the kids in Nome will die if they don't get. They quickly switch over to Balto's side, even smiling as Balto takes on position as lead dog. (Zig-Zagged in that it's revealed that they resent Steele and trash him behind his back and most likely joined in bullying Balto to avoid Steele harrassing them.
  • Sled Dogs Through the Snow: The movie is a fictitious telling of the 1925 Serum Run to Nome with a lot of dog sledding in the film, from the beginning to the actual relay.
  • Spaghetti Kiss: Steele attempts to flirt with Jenna by bringing her a sausage chain and suggesting that they start on opposite ends, but Jenna is not interested.
    Steele: You start on one end, I'll start on the other. When we get to the middle, well...
  • Spiteful Spit: Steele does this to Balto when taunting him for being a wolf/dog hybrid.
  • Stop Drowning and Stand Up: Muk and Luk are told this by Balto, leading to Muk making a speech about the "shame of the polar bears who fear the water".
  • Talking Animal: To each other, anyway. The humans don't understand them.
  • Telegraph Gag STOP: A lot of it during the telegraph transmission scenes.
  • Toothy Bird: Boris, a goose is shown with teeth a few times.
  • The Tragic Rose: Rosy, the ill girl. Not only does she live to tell the tale, but she's the Narrator All Along.
  • Truth in Television:
    • The movie is based off of an actual sled run in 1925, often called the "Great Race of Mercy", which carried diphtheria antitoxin almost seven hundred miles to stop an epidemic. The real Balto was simply the lead dog on the last sled team, and went through near whiteout conditions. However, the longest and most hazardous run was the third-to-last leg of the relay, led by another dog named Togo, who led his team on a 91-mile journey that included crossing the perilous ice of Norton Sound. Balto's team was the team that arrived in Nome, so they got most of the credit. This is the source of controversy surrounding the serum run and continues to this day by historians and mushers — most mushers today consider Togo to be the true hero of the race but the real Balto really has been immortalized with a statue in Central Park, depicted with a medal awarded to Togo, no less.
    • Also Reality Is Unrealistic in that people assumed the old woman in the beginning of the film (the adult Rosy) couldn't possibly have still been alive in the 90s. The events depicted happened in 1925, so someone who was young like most of the Diptheria patients could have easily still been alive, well into their 70s-90s. note 
    • The Incurable Cough of Death was actually not just a Hollywood cliché to show that the kids are sick - coughing is a symptom of Diptheria.
    • A good number of the extras (the humans, anyway) are native Alaskans. Nome had a sizable population of Alaskan Natives.
    • Although the real Balto was neither part wolf nor a stray, the townspeople hating on him in the film was possibly derived from the real Balto's owner, who apparently thought very little of him and eventually sold him to a novelty museum, where he lived in bad conditions until a Cleveland businessman found and rescued him.
    • Of all of the liberties that the film takes with Balto's story, one surprising accuracy was that he was often seen playing with a goose.
  • Uncertain Doom: When Steele crashes his sled, the team's musher hits his head and instantly knocked out for several days in the middle of a blizzard. Other than an easily missed muttering when he's pushed on the sled, he never regains consciousness, so we don't know if he survived the return trip to Nome or needed body parts amputated due to frostbite.
  • Undertaker: Subverted. We're led to believe that the guy making coffins for the children is one of these, but then it's revealed that he's actually the carpenter that made Rosy's sled earlier in the film. It's quite an effective scene.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: After learning Balto marked the way back to town, Steele intentionally gets the entire dog team lost, potentially dooming all the kids and the other dogs... because Steele was kicked off the team, and couldn't get the glory all to himself.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Balto was a purebred husky who only helped pulling the sleigh the last distance back to Nome. The real hero was actually another husky named Togo, the runt of his litter who surprised everyone with his strength and intelligence, and who pulled the sleigh for the longest and most hazardous distance (while he was 12 years old no less) until his exhausted self had to let Balto do the finishing miles. Being the one who actually led the sleigh into the town of Nome however, Balto was recognized as a hero more than Togo was. Additionally, the real Balto was neutered early in his life. He never fathered any pups, making the sequels pure fiction. He also looked dramatically different from the movie version, being mainly black and much less slender. He looked more like Steele than the movie Balto.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Steele has one when Balto arrives to help the sled team. He was a Smug Snake before this but when Balto arrives, he goes completely out of his mind, trying to kill him, all the while looking completely psychotic. After he loses, he continues to appear insane until he returns to the boiler room and is back to his Smug Snake mode, or at least until Balto safely arrives in Nome, resulting in everyone finally turning against him and is ultimately reduced to an outcast. It's hinted at earlier during several scenes where Steele nearly loses his cool when enraged, this is just the time he actually snaps.
  • Villainous Crush: Steele never makes a secret of his attraction to Jenna, but it's clear she'd be uninterested even if Balto weren't in the picture.
  • Villainous BSoD: After Steele gets his sled team hopelessly lost and causes their sled to crash and their musher to get knocked unconscious, and the other dogs to turn to him for guidance, he shuts down completely, and can only sit there shivering until Balto comes along.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Steele is lead dog on the most prestigious, successful sled team in town, and the dogs of Nome fawn over him and treat him like a celebrity. Subverted with the humans (who believe he's losing his edge, much to Steele's fury) and his own teammates, who are disgusted with him behind his back.
  • Violently Protective Girlfriend: Jenna straight up attacks a grizzly bear that was about to kill Balto.
  • Wham Line: "Thank you, Balto. I would have been lost without you."
  • Wham Shot: When Balto passes by the carpenter's shop, he notices the carpenter hard at work on building something. It's not until the man sets it against the wall that it's clear it's a child-sized coffin, which he places next to two others.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Jenna calls Steele out on his hatred of Balto getting in the way of getting the medicine needed to save the town and what a Glory Hound he is. Though in this case, Steele's just playing the hero and is actually the Big Bad.
  • Whispered Threat: Balto has proven himself in a test run, but Glory Hound Steele dismisses the result, calling for his usual squad to prepare for a Fetch Quest. When Balto argues that he deserves to be on the team, Steele gets in his face and starts insulting him until Jenna intervenes, angrily pointing out that the important thing is that the medicine gets through. Steele agrees that the mission is paramount, but mutters one parting shot at Balto.
    Steele: And when I get back, I'm going to fold you five ways, and leave you for a cat toy.
  • White Wolves Are Special: The mystical wolf that comes to Balto when he's at the bottom of the cliff and has lost all hope in himself, and inspires him to embrace his wolf heritage at last, is naturally pure white. The sequels revealed that she was Balto's mother and was named Aniu, but Word of God states this was not the intention in the first film and the wolf was merely a metaphor for Balto's wolf side.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Steele has one of these when he gets back to the village alone, acting like Balto attacked him and demanded the medicine. He just keeps hamming it up from there.
  • Your Mom: Steele cements his Jerkass cred during his first round of bullying Balto by saying he "has a message for [his] mother," and then starts howling. Tellingly, this is the only time Balto gets visibly angry in the entire film.