It is perhaps precisely the duty of this blog to not only warn against the box office bombs and dime-store garbage films, but to shed light on those titles that are instantly and incorrectly labelled as “crap” just because they are direct-to-video sequels to really good movies. Many such films are called out as “Cash-grabs,” and rightly so in most cases, if not all. But if you take a careful and close look at Balto 2: Wolf Quest, you may come to realize that this “cash-grab” isn’t as dumb and watered-down as you may have been led to believe: especially after so many Disney and Land Before Time sequels. Whereas Lady and the Tramp 2: Scamp’s Adventure and The Little Mermaid 2: Return to the Sea rehashed the whole first film with the children of the parents, this movie goes a similar route, but works to “advance” the story of Balto and his struggles in life, rather than retreading the same exact territory.
If you don’t remember the story, Balto was a mutt: half husky, half pure-bred white wolf (even though in real life he was all Husky). And during the course of the first film, Balto had to overcome the prejudice of his peers and the lack of faith in himself, in order to save the town of Nome, Alaska from losing all of its children to an epidemic of diphtheria. And so, after mustering up all of his good will and determination, he tracked the sled dog team that had been sent out to retrieve the anti-toxin; and led the team back to Nome in record time. Despite the major plot-hole where the token villain, Steel, managed to get back to Nome nearly 36 hours before Balto could.
Anyway, this time, in the sequel, Balto, now living with his girlfriend, Jenna; have given birth to a litter of pups: one of which is more wolf than dog. The little baby wolf’s name is Aleu; and throughout the course of her early life, she is unaware that she is different than the other dogs. She has no idea that she is a wolf. Balto had made the (albeit unwise) decision to keep this from Aleu, in the hope that some human would come to accept her.
But one day, a hunter points a gun on Aleu, attempting to snatch some food for the week. Balto and his friends manage to ward off the hunter, but Aleu is completely caught off guard by the turn of events. Balto then explains to her what she is, and she is so distressed and feels so betrayed that she runs off into the wilderness.
The rest of the film follows father and daughter as Balto attempts to make sense of his reoccurring dreams, and Aleu attempts to find out “who” she really is, not just “what” she is.
The thing that inevitably plagues all sequels to popular animated films, is that they always turn into musicals with at least 3-5 songs; even if the original film had no songs to speak of. But I am here to say that the songs here aren’t so bad. They’re well sung, they’re okay lyric-wise, some even have an effective hook and message that sticks with you.
The major stand-out here, though, is the song entitled “Who You Really Are;” which was sung by voice actor Peter MacNicol. At this point in the film, Aleu has gone pretty far out into the mountains, and tries to look for shelter from a rain storm. She finds a cave, and upon going inside, discovers a mouse singing next to a bundle of crystals. The mouse introduces himself as Muru, and listens to Aleu’s problems. Then he shifts some of the crystals around so that the light from the ceiling can bounce between them: mirroring the imagery we saw in the first film. This time the bouncing light illuminates a wall of paintings representing the spirit animals of all living creatures.
The song “Who You Really Are” begins; and in a very mystical and tribal style, Muru suggests to Aleu that she should go on a search to figure out who she is rather than continue to cling to what she think she is. Then, after the song ends, it is revealed that the little mouse was a spirit animal himself, and that he is Aleu’s spirit animal. This song is perhaps the key moment in the film where Aleu begins to understand how she can discover who she is and what she is capable of. The song also obviously sounds quite a bit like “Who Are You” from C.S.I, written by Pete Townshend. So that was a little funny.
Now as is per-usual, is the animation better or worse than the first film? Well of course it isn’t better, “but it ain’t half-bad neither.” The character design and animation is actually really close to the first in a lot of ways. Balto’s body structure and facial structure is nearly a perfect match to the first film. Every which way he moves it look no different. So that’s an extremely welcome surprise. Boris, Muk and Luk, and Jenna also have no design changes compared to the first film.
The animation itself may shift in quality from time to time. For instance, in slower, dialogue filled moments; the animation is really solid. It flows well, there’s attention to detail in expression and movement, and none of it looks choppy or irregular. Other scenes, such as Balto’s repeating nightmare, look a little less impressive: both in part to the very weak CGI rendered backgrounds, but also to the downgrade in Balto’s animation loops. His running animation looks stilted, his other movements are rocky, and it seems like the digital integration of Balto into the 3D backgrounds is a bit hit-and-miss as well. But I think the CGI-only elements are the worst looking thing about this sequel. The 2D animation, in general, is a bit better than some TV movies at the time, so it does its job admirably.
On the voice acting side, we have a surprisingly perfect performance from fan-favorite, Maurice Lamarch, as the sequel-stand-in for Kevin Bacon’s Balto. Lamarch is able to capture a similar soft gruffness and “30-something swagger” that Bacon’s voice had; allowing him to match the tone and personality of Balto rather fittingly. Another surprise was Charles Fleischer as Boris: because Bob Hoskins played Boris in the original, and Charles Fleischer played opposite Hoskins as the voice of Roger Rabbit. And so because of this, both stars from Who Framed Roger Rabbit ended up playing the same character. How weird is that?
Charles does a pretty impressive job imitating Bob’s Russian accent, by the way. He doesn’t always quite sound like him, but most of the time you might not even notice it isn’t Hoskins.
Two more notable additions to the cast include the late David Carradine, performing another one of his trade-mark “Native American/Inuit Wise Man” voices. I also mentioned him before in a previous review, where Carradine played the chief of a Lenape tribe of mice living beneath Manhattan in American Tail (3): The Treasure of Manhattan Island. The other notable actor is someone we haven’t gotten to hear in a film yet; Mark Hamill: who has made a name for himself in the past few decades for playing mostly slimy and creepy villains, but also a few gruff-sounding heroes like Wolverine and Skips from Regular Show. Here, Hamill plays Niju: a greedy and self-righteous decenter of a wolf clan led by Carradine’s character, Nava.
Voice actress Lacey Chabert, who I also mentioned in my American Tail (3) review, plays Balto’s daughter, Aleu. And gives us her typical honest young female performance. I’ll admit, her performances aren’t stellar, and her voice isn’t the most interesting young female voice I’ve heard. But she does have a pleasant and enjoyable manner.
In a case of underused talent, Jodie Benson (the voice of Ariel the little mermaid) replaces Bridget Fonda as Jenna. As far as I can remember, she doesn’t get to sing a single song. And she is perhaps the one VA in the whole film who speaks the least.
There are a few noticeable bad points about this film, but with what I’ve already told you, they aren’t the worst things in the world; just a bit disappointing.
For one thing, the writers apparently felt they still needed an out-and-out villain in this film, despite this being a movie about discovering yourself (which shouldn’t require a specific antagonist character). So they decided to rehash Steel, but turn him into the envious and spiteful wolf character named Niju. This character is only there in order to stand as a living obstacle for Aleu and Balto to over-come, rather than overcoming a personal fear or an unbiased act of nature. But ultimately, Niju proves to be disappointing even if his character was not extraneous, because he chickens out at the end and doesn’t follow-through on his self-centered interests. Or perhaps he does, depending on how you look at it.
The other problem I had was that the rest of the cast is so underused. Boris the Goose (Balto’s surrogate father), Muk and Luk (the Polarbears), and Jenna (Balto’s girlfriend) all return for this one; but after the 25 minute mark, they are all left behind so that Balto and Aleu can go on a journey alone. And while that might not sound like a problem, I wish they would have shown what happened after Aleu made her life-changing decision, so that we could see how everyone (especially Jenna) took the news. Muk and Luk are probably the most underused, but they were never integral anyway. They were always just there for fluffy and cuddly comic relief.
For a sequel to the original Balto film, I think it performs better than other DTV sequels in that it doesn’t rehash the first film with the children of the main character(s). Instead, it takes them and gives them their own story of discovery that actually gives both the child and the original character some much needed guidance, understanding, and closure.
I suppose I wouldn’t say it’s worth any of you adults buying it for yourselves. Many of the sequels that I will review will be much the same way. But I will say that I think this movie is more than a worth-while purchase for your own children. It isn’t lazy, it isn’t lame or stupid, it doesn’t talk down to the audience, and it may just teach your kids a few things to think about over their developing years. It’s always good to get them thinking about their futures early.