Following the tried-and-true Disney formula and their own steps with the "Land Before Time" series, Universal Home Video is now releasing a direct-to-video sequel to their beloved animated feature film, 1995’s wolf saga "Balto." Unfortunately, none of the voice talent or animation crew from the earlier film were involved in the new project and the end result is a film with its heart in the right place but which, in the end, unfortunately falls a bit flat.
In "Balto II: Wolf Quest," Balto (Maurice LaMarche) and Jenna (Jodi Benson) are proud parents of a new litter of pups. One pup, Aleu (Lacey Chabert), has taken on a few too many of her father’s wolf traits to be attractive as a pet to humans. Soon, both Balto and Aleu are forced to confront that within them that sets them apart and decide whether to continue fearing what their own spirits tell them is right or set out on their own to find their kindred wolf pack and fulfill their destiny.
The cast of this sequel also includes the voice talents of Mark Hamill, Peter MacNicol, and David Carradine. While everyone does a decent enough job, the story is just too problematic to be entertaining. All of the preachy dialogue infused with the totem-pole symbolism of the Pacific Northwest Native American tribes is way above the heads of the target audience and the action too often screeches to a halt so some other such tidbit can be explained ad nauseum.
Surprisingly, the movie’s animation style is also of fairly low quality with very flat cel-based character animation literally clashing with the more dimensional CGI backgrounds. It is an art direction problem that can be seen in far too many of today’s animated films and one that is prevalent here. The characters seem to be skimming across the surface rather that actually being a part of the scenes they’re in and don’t really blend with the style of the backgrounds.
"Balto II: Wolf Quest" is a direct-to-video production so the full frame format is the proper aspect ratio. The transfer is decent enough with good colors and no physical blemishes but the lackluster animation really hinders the visual appeal of the film. Contrast is good with solid blacks and good highlights. In addition however, there are a few compression artifacts and noticeable aliasing along contrasting edges.
Audio on the release is presented in English and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 channel mixes as well as a French Dolby Surround track. The dynamic range of these tracks is fairly good with some decent deep bass but, oddly enough, many of the scenes that would seem to warrant the most LFE presence actually display very little. There is some slight surround usage devoted to music and special effects but dialogue is firmly anchored front and center. The soundtrack is always easily understood but it just doesn’t make much of an impact.
More and more it seems as if Universal is using their releases as a promotion platform for franchises rather than offer value materials. "Balto II" is no exception and once again audiences are flooded with advertising for secondary products. Here, these "Extras" include a short "Rescue Aleu" game; an ad for a Rescue Heroes CD-ROM game; and trailers for "Balto," "Balto II," "Beethoven’s 4th," "The Land Before Time: The Big Freeze," and "The Land Before Time: The Stone of Cold Fire." DVD-ROM content consists of links to Universal websites as well as a playable demo of the aforementioned Rescue Heroes game.
The original "Balto" was a greatly overlooked animated film that has done very well on home video. I can’t blame Universal for trying to tap into that established fan base but, sadly, "Balto II: Wolf Quest" is a fairly weak effort and only the most stalwart fans of the wolf dog will likely be interested in the sequel. There’s nothing flat-out bad about the program but it just doesn’t capture the imagination of the viewer like the original film. I sat through the whole movie for the sake of this review but the resident 3-year-old had lost interest and wandered away within the first 10 minutes.