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In Appreciation of Balto and Its Great Voice Cast

That 1990s moment when Kevin Bacon, Bridget Fonda, and Phil Collins took an epic cross-country trip through the snow.

By Benjamin Bullard
Boris the Goose (Bob Hoskins) speaks to Balto (Kevin Bacon) in a snowy landscape in Balto (1995).

Did you know there was a real-life Balto the hero dog long before there was ever a Balto the movie? Like his Kevin Bacon-voiced counterpart in the delightful 1995 animated feature film (streaming here on Peacock), the Alaskan husky was part of a sled team that schlepped a shipment of critical antitoxins over 600 snowy miles to quell a diphtheria bacterial outbreak in the frigid and isolated town of Nome, Alaska.

A portion of the famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race covers the route that Balto and his team took to deliver their serum almost 100 years ago. A statue of Balto in New York’s Central Park commemorates the daring mission, too, and that real-world monument serves as the live action setting where Balto the movie begins, as a woman (Miriam Margolyes, known to Harry Potter film fans as Professor Pomona Sprout) and her grandchild seek out the statue and recall an admittedly movie-embellished version of those historical events.

The Balto voice cast: Kevin Bacon, Phil Collins, & more

Balto is a throwback animated movie in every best sense of the idea. It’s sweet, uplifting, not at all convoluted, and a satisfyingly snowy way to spend a family movie night as the holiday season gets closer. Created by Amblimation — the onetime animation arm of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment — it’s nostalgically 2D in its hand-drawn presentation, harkening to the late stages of an especially productive 1990s animated-movie era when fans mounted ardent defenses of their favorite studios’ signature visual styles.

RELATED: Balto Director on "Literal Underdog Story" that Closed Out Era of Spielberg-Produced Animation

Balto also has a surprisingly great cast of acting talent to give voice to its animated animals. Bacon plays the titular wolf-dog with a lowkey, soft spoken confidence, while the late, great Bob Hoskins brings off-kilter energy to the sidekick role of Boris — a goose with a Russian accent who serves up comic relief with on-brand goose-y zingers like, “Who else would you bring on a wild goose chase but a goose!?” and, “I was so scared, I got people bumps!”

A little boy reaches out for something as Balto (Kevin Bacon) watches worried in Balto (1995).

Music legend Phil Collins even brings his Grammy-winning pipes not to just one, but a pair of endearing roles, playing ‘fraidy-cat polar bear buddies Muk and Luk as two innocent furballs who excel at scurrying in the opposite direction of danger. Juliette Brewer (The Little Rascals) has the most prominent speaking role among the movie’s animated humans as Rosy, a young red-headed Nome resident who happens to be the kindly owner of Balto’s canine love interest, Jenna (voiced by Bridget Fonda). Jenna’s a red-coated Siberian husky with a gentle demeanor that matches her owner — and it’s no surprise that her affections favor Balto over local alpha-dog Steele (longtime Winnie the Pooh voice actor Jim Cummings), who’s really only in this wilderness sledding thing to score some ill-intentioned brownie points.

RELATED: The E.T. Easter Egg You Probably Missed in Animated Classic Balto

The story, of course, is all about Balto’s heroism as he improvises his ascent out of the cold streets of Nome (where the humans view him as a mongrel) and into the history books as the Serum-bearing savior of Nome’s sickly residents. It’s a straightforward tale aimed squarely at kids, though the amazing voice cast and some genuinely awe-inspiring animated set pieces (like a perspective-stretching showdown with a big grizzly bear) make Balto a fun first-time watch (or a nostalgia-triggering rewatch) to bring out the kid in adults, too.

Jenna (Bridget Fonda) and Sylvie, standing on a barrel, listen to Dixie (Sandra Dickinson) speak outside in Balto (1995).

There’s naturally a bit of creative bending of the historical record to give Balto an extra dose of film-worthy drama. The real Balto wasn’t, for example, a neighborhood stray who clawed and pawed his way to a higher purpose; he was in fact a born-and-bred sledder right from the very start. The movie makes pretty great use of those kind of liberties, though, earning one last gasp in its closing moments as Margolyes’ grandmother character makes a storytelling connection that neatly bridges Balto’s live action and animated elements.

For sure, no one’s mush-ing their way over to Peacock to see Balto for its documentary value — though it’s actually pretty impressive how the film pays credible homage to the real-life animal’s enduring legacy (fun fact: the real Balto has been mounted and preserved at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where he remains on display to this day.)

Balto smiles in Balto (1995) while humans wait in a long line.

As a movie, Balto carved out a bit of cinematic history of its own, marking the last of Amblimation’s three animated features (alongside 1991’s An American Tail: Fievel Goes West and 1993’s  We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story) before the studio closed and its talented staff was absorbed into present-day animation juggernaut DreamWorks. As swan songs go, it’s an epic farewell not only to a studio, but to an era of 1990s animation that was soon to make way for the impressive-but-different screen magic of CGI.

Stream Balto on Peacock here.

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