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Film review: Balto

Spielberg tale of heroic dog/wolf full of wit and energy; violent, miscast Twain story derails.

Two new kids pictures have opened locally, a non-Disney animated feature that is much better than expected, and the umpteenth adaptation of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," which has already been filmed too often.

— "BALTO" is the (true) story of a raggedy half-dog/half-wolf that saves the day when a diphtheria epidemic threatens children in Nome, Alaska, circa 1925, from Steven Spielberg's animation factory.

Balto (voiced by Kevin Bacon) is ostracized by the other dogs in town, and the local humans are also wary of an animal that is half-wolf. But the pooch's heart is in the right place . . . if only he could get the chance to prove it.

Eventually, a team of dogs is organized to go after the medicine during a blizzard, led by obnoxious lead dog Steele (Jim Cummings). Balto wants to go help, but he's turned away.

So, he goes out on his own and ultimately gets a chance to prove himself.

The central story is fairly compelling, with lots of "Indiana Jones" cliffhanging adventures ("Indiana Pooch," perhaps?). And the visuals are wonderfully realized, with some real excitement to the sled team in the snow.

But what makes "Balto" work is the bevy of supporting characters who add comic relief: Balto's best friend, a crotchety Russian snow goose (Bob Hoskins), a pair of goofball polar bears (both voiced by Phil Collins) and Steele's three bickering cohorts, who may remind you of the trio of hyenas in "The Lion King" (if not the Three Stooges). Bridget Fonda provides the voice of a husky named Jenna for a romantic subplot that owes more than a little to Disney's "Lady and the Tramp."

There's enough wit and energy here to please both kids and adults, and this is a big step up from Spielberg's last animated-feature outing, the deplorable "We're Back."

— "TOM AND HUCK" is another effort by Disney to make Mark Twain spin in his grave, the other being the summer offering "A Kid in King Arthur's Court."

This version of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" has been shaped as a vehicle for cutesy television star Jonathan Taylor Thomas, a Disney contract player who is apparently being groomed as this generation's Tommy Kirk. But his trademark smart-alecky attitude is all wrong for Tom Sawyer.

Thomas plays one of Tim Allen's sons in "Home Improvement," a Disney TV production, and he had a hit last year for Walt Disney Pictures with "Man of the House" and provided the voice of young Simba in "The Lion King." (He's also described in the production notes as a student with "a straight `A' grade average," should you care)

His take on "Tom and Huck" is so contemporary in tone, it's as if Twain's young heroes are interacting in the mall instead of along the shores of the great Mississippi. (Director Peter Hewitt boasts among his previous credits "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey," which explains a lot.)

All the expected vignettes are here: Tom using reverse-psychology to talk his buddies into white-washing a fence; Tom and Huck going to the cemetery to swing a dead cat and thereby rid themselves of warts but instead witnessing Injun Joe's murder of the local doctor; Tom, who is believed to have drowned, watching his own funeral from the chapel rafters; and in the film's finale, Tom and Becky Thatcher being stalked by Injun Joe in a cave.

But it's like a cinematic version of Cliff's Notes, with none of the story or character's integrity preserved. It's also rather surprising to see the level of violence as high as it is, which may have been intended to be more true to the book — but considering all the other compromises here, that seems a poor choice.

Brad Renfro ("The Client," "The Cure"), whose surly, sneering attitude is probably better suited to Huck Finn than was Elijah Wood's cheerful demeanor in Disney's "The Adventures of Huck Finn" a couple of years ago, seems to be posing rather than acting.

There is also a short cartoon, "Stand By Me," attached to the front of this film, a sort of animated music video starring Timon and Pumbaa (the meerkat and warthog from "The Lion King").

Timon sings the old pop song "Stand By Me" while Pumbaa suffers all sorts of comic indignities, some of which are pretty funny. (Since a TV series with these characters has just been announced, maybe this is meant to act as a big-screen pilot.)

"Tom and Huck" is rated PG for violence and profanity.