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1995 was a very good year for James Horner. In that year alone, he composed the scores for: Jumanji, Braveheart, Casper, Jade, Balto and Apollo 13. “Heritage of the Wolf” from Balto (1995) remains one of my favorite musical moments. Balto recounts the true story of how vital diphtheria medicine had to be relayed from Nenana to Nome, Alaska by rail and then by sled dog, to combat an outbreak of the illness. Being an animated film, the story does take some liberties with the events (for instance, it was multiple teams of sled dogs, not just the one), but the overall event is true (and there IS a statue of Balto in Central Park, I went there myself in 2009).
In the film, Balto (voiced by Kevin Bacon) is a Siberian Husky/wolf hybrid, ostracized by the rest of the dogs because he’s a “half-breed” and unwilling to embrace his wolf side. Determined to help, Balto has set out after the missing sled team that was supposed to bring the medicine back to Nome. After a series of events (this film will eventually have a post all to its own), Balto has found the team and the medicine, but has plunged off a cliff (with the medicine box) and his current fate is unknown.
As the cue starts, Balto’s friends listen at the door as the other dogs discuss the fact that the children of Nome are likely doomed if the medicine does not arrive soon (there’s no time to send another team). All hope seems to be abandoned as the lights of Nome are one by one turned out. However, Jenna, a female husky (and in love with Balto) has not given up and is dragging out a lantern and creates an artificial aurora by placing the light behind shards of glass (a trick Balto showed her earlier), hoping the light will guide Balto home.
Meanwhile, Balto is shown to be alive, dragging himself out of the snow. This is the main part of the cue, and the part I love the most. Balto is at rock bottom right now, he believes the medicine is gone and that he’s failed. But then, a white wolf appears in front of him (later sequels establish that this is his mother), and invites him to “become a wolf” by howling, but Balto refuses, and the wolf walks away. But then, Balto realizes that the medicine is intact and he remembers the advice his friend gave before he left “A dog, cannot make this journey alone. But maybe…a wolf can.” Inspired, Balto turns in the direction of the wolf and sets one paw down into the print (it matches perfectly). Realizing and finally accepting that he has been a wolf all along, Balto rears up and howls, drawing the white wolf back to him.
For the moments where Balto faces the white wolf, Horner repeats the same melody in strings over and over, it changes registers on almost every iteration. And when it peaks in the high strings (listen to the moment when the wolf turns to walk away), it always makes my eyes tear up. The timbral changes reflect the changing mood of the scene. First: despair (low and almost minor); second, hope (a change to major as the wolf appears); third, denial (a slide back to minor as the wolf walks away, melody high in strings); realization (a mix of major and minor, the ensemble plays together); decision (firm major key, melody in horn).
There’s a few more minutes of music beyond this, but that’s a discussion for another time. For now, I’ll leave you with the triumphant moment where Balto finally finds himself.
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