We all know the story of Balto: In the cold winter of 1925, an epidemic of diphtheria plagued a small town in Nome, Alaska. In a race against time to stop the infection, 20 mushers and over 100 sled dogs carried a shipment of serum over a thousand kilometers of freezing, treacherous Alaska wilderness.
Balto is often credited as the hero dog of the 1925 serum run to Nome (also known as The Great Race of Mercy)… but he was no more heroic than any other dog. He just happened to run the last 55 miles of the race.
Togo ran the longest stretch (264 miles) in just three days, through the most perilous stretches of wilderness. Togo navigated his team through a blizzard so thick and white that even his musher became lost, and saved his team from drowning over broken ice fields.
Yet, Balto ran the last stretch, so he was the bigger celebrity.
Most people already suspect the animated Balto film, despite marketing itself as being based on a true story, is probably not that accurate. Talking dogs? Russian wild goose? Two friendly polar bears? A husky voiced by Jim Cummings? Surely, you jest!
Artistic liberties aside, the Balto movie disrespects the 1925 Serum Race in one very big way: It depicts the “Togo” character as an incompetent glory hound who DESERVED to have his credit stolen.
“But wait!” I hear you say, “There is no Togo in the animated Balto movie.”
You’re right… And I would argue that Steele is a stealth allusion to Togo.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look:
Here’s a picture of the real Balto:
Here’s the animated version:
Clearly, the animators did their homework. They made the animated Balto rather small and brown, just like the real Balto he was based on.
And then we’ve got Togo:
And now here’s the animated Steele:
All right, maybe they don’t have the closest resemblance, but the movie Steele does look a bit like Togo. Black and white, and a more robust build than little Balto.
Also, tellingly, Togo retired from sled racing after the 1925 serum run and became a stud dog. His lineage laid the foundation for the modern Siberian husky breed, and especially the rare Seppala Siberian Sleddog working dog breed.
I find it hard to believe the animated Steele happens to look like a modern Siberian husky purebred, which Togo founded, whereas every other dog in the movie are more period-appropriate sled dog mutts and malamutes.
But maybe that’s all a huge coincidence. Maybe the animators didn’t know that Togo founded the Siberian husky bloodline, and they happened to make Steele look like a modern husky despite Steele being surrounded by more period-accurate brown and beige sled dogs.
The problem is, most of Steele’s actions in the film also resemble Togo’s real-life accomplishments.
The movie opens with Steele running a close race against another musher. Steele runs too close to the opposing team against his master and fellow dog’s warnings, and snaps at another dog in the opposing team.
The real-life Togo was infamous in his early days for running too close to and snapping at other sled dogs. In fact, Togo once snapped at a malamute and got mauled by it. Once recovered, he learned his lesson and never crowded or bit at opposing sled dogs again.
The movie also shows Steele running the lion’s share of the 1925 serum run through the Alaska wilderness, through the same route as the real-life Togo. While the movie leaves out how over 20 mushers and 100 sled dogs ran the race in shifts (like a marathon), it does show Steele covering a wider range than even the movie Balto.
Steele also travels through a blizzard so thick and white that even his musher gets lost. In the movie, Steele runs around in circles because he’s too proud to admit he doesn’t know where he’s going, but the real-life Togo amazed his musher by navigating his team out of a blizzard that even the musher couldn’t find his way out of.
In the film, Steele also mistakenly leads his team over an icy slope, which causes them to slide and crash. There, he just sits and gives up because he doesn’t know what to do. The real-life Togo famously led his teams over dangerous ice fields, including the treacherous Norton Sound.
Also, not to read too much into this, but after the 1925 serum run Togo retired from sled racing and became a stud dog. In Balto (1995), after Steele returns early from the serum run, well…
Finally, Steele is depicted as an arrogant glory hound who DESERVES to have the credit taken by Balto. Despite running most of the distance, Steele is made out to be such an arrogant bully, coward, and glory hound that we are meant to cheer when Balto comes in for the last stretch to deliver the medicine, leaving Steele forgotten.
… Much like Togo was forgotten when Balto crossed the finish line.
This could all just be a big coincidence, but I find it rather telling that despite the black-and-white Togo running the longest stretch through some of the most perilous regions, he didn’t get the fame he deserved because Balto happened to cross the finish line.
Likewise, the Balto filmmakers wrote a situation where a black-and-white villain dog runs the longest stretch over the vast wilderness (and specifically showed the route Togo took), but since he’s an arrogant coward and bully who tried to stop Balto from delivering the medicine because he wanted the glory for himself… Steele is depicted as deserving losing his glory to Balto.
Given that there are just enough historical details in the film, I suspect the filmmakers knew that Togo did most of the work and Balto took most of the credit. But accurately showing Togo doing most of the leg work while another dog got most of the glory would be a bummer ending for an uplifting 90’s animated family film. So they created a fictional situation where Balto running the last stretch and getting most of the credit was justified.
And given how many other artistic liberties the film took…
But I could be mistaken. The movie is far from historically accurate, which most people can guess by the talking animals. It’s a standard 90’s “underdog proves himself a hero” animated family film, in the same vein as Hercules, A Bug’s Life, Osmosis Jones, How to Train Your Dragon (2003, but still), etc.
They set out to entertain, not educate.
But if the similarities between Steele and Togo were intentional, I find it just a tad cheeky that the filmmakers doubled down on the lie that Balto was the great hero of the race by framing the Togo counterpart as an arrogant glory hound who deserved to have his credit stolen and his name forgotten, rather than create some other conflict or explanation.
If wishes were sled dogs, right?
But, all is not lost:
Disney (of all companies) gave Togo his due with the 2018 live-action movie of the same name, released on Disney+. It has its share of historical liberties too, but its heart is in the right place.
Believe it or not, Togo’s journey has ample material for a “misunderstood underdog proves himself a hero” story: He was a sickly puppy, had behavior issues, and his breeder gave him away to be a house pet because he thought he wasn’t cut out to be a sled dog, only for Togo to break through a closed glass window to return to his master.
Togo quickly settled into the harness, and proved such a dedicated sled dog that he quickly rose the ranks to lead dog. He was also the fastest and most tenacious of any dog his age; a “puppy prodigy.” He was indeed over 12 years old during serum run, which his owner feared he might be too old for. But Togo came in clutch and not only ran the fastest and longest in his life, but he saved his team many times by leading them through harsh blizzards, and treacherous broken ice beds.
Togo was a hero.
As his owner Leonhard Seppala remarked:
“It was almost more than I could bear when the newspaper dog Balto received a statue for his ‘glorious achievements’ … I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty, and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.”
And even if Togo can’t be the hero of his own movie (the way he wasn’t in the animated Balto film), he deserves better than to have his counterpart framed as a selfish glory hound who deserved to be forgotten.