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  • Composed by James Horner
  • MCA Soundtracks / 1995 / 54m

Loosely based on actual events of 1925, Balto is an animated film telling the story of a half-dog/half-wolf who helps prevent a diphtheria epidemic in Alaska.  I’m very amused by the Wikipedia entry for the film, which boldly states that the film’s biggest inaccuracy was portraying Balto as a grey wolfdog when in fact he was a purebred Siberian husky.  If that’s the film’s biggest inaccuracy then I guess at least some portion of the same page’s plot summary must be true: “Balto, a wolfdog hybrid, lives on the outskirts of Nome with his best friend and adoptive father, a snow goose named Boris and two polar bears, Muk and Luk.  Being half-breed, Balto is ridiculed by dogs and humans alike.  His only friend in town is a red husky named Jenna who Balto has a crush on and is challenged by the town’s favorite sled dog, Steele, a fierce and arrogant purebred Alaskan Malamute.”

The film was James Horner’s sixth and final foray into animation, a bit of a shame really given how good he was at them.  In common with all but one of the others, it was a Steven Spielberg production.  (It’s a shame Horner never managed to get his teeth into a Disney animation; by the time they started using a wider range of composers, he had given up on animation.)  Also in common with the others, there is a lot of inspiration taken from the classical masters, particularly the Russians (but who cares?)

James Horner

James Horner

The score has a main theme which appears throughout, in numerous guises, starting right at the start of the main title piece “Balto’s Story Unfolds”.  Long-lined, dashing and heroic, it’s memorable and exciting and deserves to be much better-known.  That opening piece also introduces the surprisingly full-bodied, thunderous action style of the score in its second half (you’d never guess it was for an animation) – there’s some really wonderful action music here.  And when you realise how closely related the melody is in its soft incarnation at the start of the cue and its rousing action/adventure style at the end, you notice how Horner weaves it all the way through the score.

“The Dogsled Race” includes some wonderful wintry touches as it moves from jolly hijinks to much more serious drama, including another dynamic arrangement of that theme.  More comical is the opening to “Rosy Goes to the Doctor”, before it enters much sweeter territory later; and then there’s a Slavic feel to the very brief “Boris and Balto”.  After that there’s a great sequence of action/adventure cues starting with “The Journey Begins”, a piece of great dramatic flair with some trademark Horner flourishes.  The use of the theme is so strong, soaring away as it does, it’s one of the album’s standout pieces without doubt.  There’s a slightly comic feel to “Grizzly Bear” at first, but peril is not far behind and some window-rattling brass and percussion is really exciting.  For its wonderful features though, the piece doesn’t quite have the tight focus of the composer’s best music for animation (some of which is remarkably fluid yet entirely coherent, much more so than is common for this medium of film).

There’s an absolutely lovely, sweet opening to “Jenna / Telegraphing the News” before some lovely woodwind writing clearly and cleverly evoking morse code.  “Steele’s Treachery” is much darker, surprisingly intense suspense opening the cue getting deceptively softer before exploding back to life towards the end of the cue.  The music takes a bit of a breather in “The Epidemic’s Toll” (which despite its title has a comic feel running through the middle of it which slightly detracts from it) before the score ends with a spectacular pair of cues.  “Heritage of the Wolf” is the best, with a grand, rousing treatment of the main theme coming after the unexpected appearance of another melody (from Mahler!) which later served as the main theme from Enemy at the Gates – and even more unexpectedly, a fanfare that’s virtually identical to the little one Randy Newman wrote for Buzz Lightyear for the first Toy Story, which I guess was a coincidence because the two films were released almost simultaneously (although interestingly, Don Davis orchestrated both of them).  Whatever– the whole thing is a glorious piece of music.  The finale is “Balto Brings the Medicine”, which opens in the most soaring fashion as the main theme flies high from both orchestra and choir; the piece does rather calm down after that, but it’s very lovely indeed and a very satisfying finale.

The album is bookended with two slightly different versions of the same song, “Reach for the Light”, written by Horner with his An American Tail collaborators Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and sung with great gusto by Steve Winwood.  It’s based on the score’s main theme and is pretty in its way but certainly not one of the composer’s finest.  As a whole, Balto is an exciting, energetic score bolstered by a very fine main theme, but it doesn’t quite reach the dizzy heights of Horner’s best animated scores (which in fact were his first two).

Rating: **** | |

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  1. Kevin (Reply) on Wednesday 26 August, 2015 at 03:24

    It’s really amazing how Horner approached animation with the same sense of seriousness and professionalism that he did with live action, and this score is a perfect example of that. You’re right, it really is unfortunate that he never tried out Disney/Pixar.

  2. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Wednesday 26 August, 2015 at 16:40

    I’m sorry, but is that really so unusual? I’m constantly hearing praises like that for all sorts of animated scores, but I see zero evidence that film composers have ever taken animation less seriously or professionally than live-action.

  3. Kevin (Reply) on Thursday 27 August, 2015 at 21:03

    Speaking for myself, if I ever heard this or The Land Before Time completely blind, I never would have guessed they were for animation.

  4. tvrts (Reply) on Sunday 6 September, 2015 at 00:21

    “[…]coming after the unexpected appearance of another melody (from Mahler!) which later served as the main theme from Enemy at the Gates[…]”

    Interestingly, this one wasn’t the first time this “theme” has appeared on a Horner score. It was also on Sneakers (Playtronics Break-In), Apollo 13 (Re-Entry and Splashdown), Titanic (Death of Titanic) and The Perfect Storm. Many (clueless) people accused Horner to have stolen this theme from Williams’ Schindler’s List, but, if you analyse in which scenes this theme appears, it is clear what Horner was trying to do. I mean, only James Horner could make such a connection on a drama about astronauts, a romance about a ship, an animated kids movie about a wolf and a war drama about the Battle of Stalingrad. This excellent article explains the whole story:

    Anyway, it’s indeed sad that Horner has made only few animated movies. I would love to see how he would tackle a Pixar film. I was just hearing Once Upon a Forest the other day, and it’s really beautiful, I’m eager to see your opinion on that, James.

  5. Mikal (Reply) on Friday 11 September, 2015 at 15:39

    “Anyway, it’s indeed sad that Horner has made only few animated movies.”

    Seven is a few? 😛