“Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the Winter of 1925.
Endurance • Fidelity • Intelligence”
Balto is a worthwhile animated film that received mixed reviews when it first appeared in theaters in 1995. Yet the film, produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, deserves a visit to the video store this summer for parents in need of a rainy-day diversion. Moreover, the film subtly reinforces family relationships in its opening when a grandmother and her granddaughter search through New York's Central Park for a statue of the famous dog, Balto. As they search, the grandmother tells the story of Balto and his race to save Nome, Alaska.
The film portrays Balto, a half-husky and half-wolf sled dog, as an object of derision by his fellow pack members for his differences and as an object of fear by humans because of his mixed breeding. Humiliated and rejected by the proud pack leader, Steele, Balto finds companionship and warmth in a budding romance with Jenna, a husky owned by a little girl named Rosie, and finds a wise friend in a grumpy snow goose and two not-very-wise polar bears named Muk and Luk.
Although charmingly if rather conventionally-animated, Balto enters the realm of educational history film and useful parental tool, when, in the story line, his home town of Nome faces a crisis: The 1925 outbreak of diphtheria. In 1925, the future of Nome, situated on the Seward Peninsula named after Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State, already looked tragic. The town's population, once swollen by the Alaskan gold rush to more than 20,000 people, had shrunk to fewer than 1,400 people and the gold was disappearing into an economic sinkhole of depression as hard as the ice which kept the town frozen for seven months of the year. The nearest link to the outside world, except for telegraph and radio, was the railway terminus at Nenana, over six hundred miles away.
On January 20, 1925, the message went out to the world. Diphtheria, a deadly disease that affects throat and lungs, had broken out in the community in such epidemic proportions that there was a desperate need for large quantities of antitoxin. Alaska's "Great Race of Mercy" to save Nome and its inhabitants began.
In Balto, the story is much abbreviated, of course, and Balto is properly the hero. Refused a place in the pack's efforts to get to Nenana and back with the life saving medicine, Balto subsequently must attempt to rescue, not only his master and his canine comrades, but also the arrogant Steele. After many adventures including an escape from an avalanche, Balto makes the dash back from Nenana with the serum in time to save the people of Nome and become a classic American hero.
In reality, the effort in 1925 was more complex, involving several acts of heroism, both human and animal. On January 20, 1925, the world learned of the town's desperate plight. Almost immediately response came from Anchorage, which began raising the requisite amounts of antitoxin and dealing with the logistics of getting them to Nenana. Getting them to Nome would be another thing altogether. The only way in and out of the disease ridden city was by dog sledders, nicknamed mushers. The most frequently used but exceedingly dangerous trail was the Iditarod. It would take two weeks and 14 sled teams to carry the materials needed to Nome.
The two most famous mushers in Alaska, Leonard Seppala with his dog Togo and Gunner Kassen with Balto, spearheaded the effort. In the animated film, Balto rescues his injured master from danger while crossing Norton Sound and then finds the serum which had been lost in the snowstorm. In reality, Togo made that fortuitous save of his master while the serum, although briefly lost in the blinding blizzard, was found by human endeavor. On February 2, 1925, Kassen and his team of dogs, led by Balto, raced into Nome before daybreak. They had made a trip of almost seven hundred miles in a shattering 127 hours and 30 minutes. Kassen and Balto as well as the rest of the team became instant heroes.
A short documentary, called "Balto's Race To Nome" was made to celebrate the event and Balto and his team made a brief tour in the United States. Fame, however, as with many "stars," proved fleeting. Two years after the great race to save Nome, a Cleveland business man, George Kimble, discovered Balto and his companion sled dogs in a cheap museum in Los Angeles. They were ill and mistreated. Kimble paid $2,000 to save the dogs and presented them to the care of the Cleveland Zoo. On March 19, 1927, Balto led his six canine comrades in a parade through the city's public square and then they retired to a life of dignity, security, and popular affection in the city zoo.
When Balto died at age 11 in March of 1933, the half-breed's body was preserved in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to serve as a reminder of the race against death that saved Nome. An equally graceful appreciation came from the people of Alaska. Like the ancient Athenians commemorating the victory at Marathon by a race in the Olympics, the Alaskans instituted an annual race, the Iditarod that retraces the triumphal route of Balto.
The film is a delight for small children and provides parents with real opportunities for discussion. In particular, the problems of Balto as a mixed breed outcast raises essential problems of acceptance and tolerance. Watching Muk and Luk, two polar bears who are afraid to go in the water, reminds children that good friends are not always particularly smart or brave. Conversely, the ornery, snow goose, Boris, proves you can be smart and good-hearted under a gruff exterior.
More importantly, the ways in which Balto attempts to win support and approval remind children that they can help change or turn situations around by their own conduct and behavior. "Do what you know is right, but do it kindly" is good advice for even young children to weigh. Yet, at the same time, when Steele gets his "just desserts," children can understand what is happening and feel a sense of justice.
Finally, the film gives parents an opportunity with slightly older children to discuss the treatment of animals and what the kindness of George Kimble meant to Balto and his sled team. For children with sports interests, the annual sporting event known as the Iditarod Race, which has gained increasing recognition and popularity in recent years, is useful. The race still symbolizes, as it did in 1925, grueling endurance in a noble cause, courageous interaction between humans and animals, as well as civic recognition of individual effort.
For children, K4-6, Laura Rice Bergen's Balto in the All Aboard Reading Series is useful, while, older children can read Lavere Anderson's Balto: Sled Dog of Alaska or Natalie Standiford's The Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Balto.
Elizabeth Cody Kimmel, author of two good books for the young, Ice Story: Shackelton's Lost Expedition and the complex ghost story and mystery, In the Stone Circle, has a new publication due in the autumn, Balto and the Great Race.
For parents, DeeDee Janrowe's Iditarod Dreams: A Year in the Life of An Alaskan Sled Dog Racer and Kew Freedman's Iditarod Classics: Tales of the Trail by the Men and Women who Raced Across America will provide plenty of supplemental material to answer questions raised by the film.
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