Offering a mild diversion for the youngest of kids, “Balto” is an average, at best, animated yarn based loosely on a true story from the 1920s. With OK action sequences but scant wit or humor, the appeal to small fry of a heroic hound should manage to sniff out a few bones in the children’s market as “Toy Story” gradually winds down.
Live-action wraparounds help frame the story of Balto (voiced by Kevin Bacon) , a stray half-dog, half-wolf who, despite being an outcast among both humans and canines due to his lineage, helps guide a sled carrying medication to a town full of sick kids in Alaska.
Taking a page from “Beauty and the Beast,” the villain, Steele (Jim Cummings) , is a much-admired leader of the pack with an insidious core who deeply resents Balto, seeking to sabotage him at every turn and vying with him for the affection of Jenna (Bridget Fonda), whose owner, Rosy, is among the sick children.
Despite being shunned by most of the dogs, Balto has an assortment of friends that includes a Russian goose named Boris (Bob Hoskins) and two landlocked polar bears, Muk and Luk (Phil Collins voices the duo).
“Balto” doesn’t miss many tricks as far as pro-social messages go, from suggesting individuals should be accepted for their differences to a moment in which the protagonist — in Gandhi-like fashion — won’t fight, no matter how Steele goads him. Take that, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
Still, “Balto” comes up short in a number of areas, as director Simon Wells (co-director of Amblin’s “An American Tail II: Fievel Goes West”) and a quartet of writers fall flat with much of the humor, only occasionally delivering laughs either with broad comedy or more sophisticated jokes (a moment spoofing “E.T.” comes to mind) capable of truly tickling adults as well as tots.
The filmmakers fare a bit better when it comes to suspense, though the obstacle course Balto and company have to navigate eventually feels a bit strained — from an avalanche to falling stalactites — with little respite or character development between the episodes.
The goose and bears, in particular, don’t add much to the proceedings, while Balto himself proves rather blandly heroic.
The same holds true from a technical standpoint, where the animation is fluid but the general look and character design fly below the radar of the genre’s recent standard-bearers. James Horner’s blaring score does work overtime to create a sense of excitement, and the live-action finale lends a touch of class.
“Balto” is thoroughly inoffensive, which may provide some allure to parents. Even so, those with young kids would probably be best advised to go pet their pooch, then wait for the video.