Wolf Quest and the "Hero's Journey"

Wolf Quest and the  Hero's Journey

How the concept of the "Hero's Journey" can be found in the most unlikely of places - in the first Balto sequel

The hero - Who is the first character that one can think of that fits this title in the animated Balto trilogy?

Why, Balto, of course! In the first movie, he was the half-breed wolfdog that risked his life to save the dying children of Nome, even though he was disliked and despiced by most humans and canines that lived there. In the end, he overcame obstacles, went against all odds to reach his dream of leading a dog-sled team, and learned to accept that wolf blood within him.

However, he is not the only example of a hero that was created in the series. If anyone, his wolf-like daughter, Aleu, fits the title of "hero" - or in this case, "heroine" - a little bit better than he does, if only because the second film, "Wolf Quest", follows her story into maturity and the beginning of her eventual journey into greatness.

Now, why would that be? Aleu is seen as a whiny yet playful quarter-wolf pup that only runs away from home after getting upset at her dad about why she will never be adopted like her brothers and sisters. She can't really fight to defend herself, nor does she know much about the outside world that she is kept away from, but she does have a strange knack for correcting others' grammar. How could a character like her be a better representative of a hero than Balto?

Well, there are a few reasons to explain that 'why', as well as an explanation of why "Wolf Quest" is a good plot that develops our heroine for her possible future.



A Hero's Characteristics

According to Joseph Campbell, an author that wrote the book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, a journey's hero is "someone who has given his life over to someone or something bigger than himself", and both Balto and Aleu fit this pretty well. However, there are some usual characteristics that are often noticed in typical heroes that follow the monomyth formula:


  • Hero is male - Unfortunately, Aleu is female, so she breaks the mold here. Campbell says that females have no need to make a journey, as they stand for creation and ultimate wisdom [Perhaps this is why Jenna is cast out of making any journeys in the sequels?]. However, if women do journey out on a quest, it's usually to either get a mate or find a prince for marriage... which are both the same thing in most cases. Typical traditional storytelling.


  • Hero is born of a lower class, but might have something special about them that they don't know about, like extraordinary powers or a birthright - Oh yes. Aleu is already a "lower class", given to how wolf-hybrids are treated  [although we aren't sure how much of Balto's statement to Boris ["You know how some of the dogs around here still tease me because I'm half-wolf?"] is true after Aleu's birth; apparently Balto's presence didn't scare people away from his puppies, did they? How other dogs treat them isn't shown until the events of "Wings of Change", and even then, it's never really mentioned save for a howl. That doesn't help, movie.] or at least how harsh Balto was treated in the first movie. Special-wise, Aleu definitely doesn't seem special... that is until she arrives in the wilderness... but we'll explain this part later.


  • Hero's parents are not around, usually by death - Ehehe, this isn't the case for Aleu at all. Both of her parents are alive and well, though it seems that her mother, Jenna, is not in her life as much as Balto, Boris, Muk and Luk are. Is this due to her wolfish looks and Balto being so protective of her? Probably.


  • Hero is judged by his/her actions - Eh... maybe? Aleu doesn't really do much prior to her journey except for being who she is and foreshadowing what her eventual destiny is meant to be. She howls and pounces like her wolf ancestors, and those that don't understand tell her to stop, mainly Jenna ["Aleu honey, please don't howl like that."] and Boris ["Okay, okay already! Knock off the roughhousing!"]. Balto, on the other hand, treats her like a little pup even while she's over a year old and is very protective of her because of her actions. He doesn't want her to end up prosecuted like he was when growing up in Nome, especially since Aleu seems to be more open about howling in public, so his concern is understandable. Muk and Luk just consider Aleu as a playmate, and her brothers and sisters are only shown as to have accepted her as a sibling [though they seem to have gotten sick and tired of her howling as they covered their ears while waiting to be adopted].



Description of "The Hero's Journey"

The concept of the "Hero's Journey" is a popular path that writers use to develop the journey of their hero protagonists. Even many well-known novel and movie series, such as Star Wars, the Lord of the Kings, and Harry Potter, as well as more classical tales of myth and legend end up following this simple formula, allowing a hero to grow and mature as he or she goes on their journey into the unknown.

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell summarizes the "Hero's Journey" as this:

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

The "Hero's Journey" formula - also called a monomyth - can be separated into three major sections:

1. Departure [also called "Separation"] - Our hero leaves what he or she knows for some purpose or reason, usually with the assistance of some mysterious force.

2. Initiation - After accepting his or her quest, the hero goes through several trials and adventures that lead to his or her eventual destiny... as well as reaching some sort of possible enlightenment.

3. Return - After achieving some sort of ultimate goal [whether it be knowledge, power or some other sort of boon], the hero journeys back home as a completely changed person.

"Wolf Quest" only focuses on the Departure or Separation section of the "Hero's Journey", which is made up of four or five smaller yet still important sections...



1: Call to Adventure

The Call to Adventure can be a number of things, usually in the form of a request from someone, a challenge, or some sort of a problem that needs solving.  Either way, this causes the hero to leave their home and venture off into unknown territory.


In "Wolf Quest", Aleu's call to adventure isn't really what someone would consider as a "call". When she brushes with a hunter's gun [not knowing the difference between a human that wants a pet and a human that wants her hide], Balto is forced to reveal the truth of why the hunter aimed at her - she looks like a wolf and the looks came from his side of the family. Upset at him, Aleu heads for the wilderness to be alone and away from her father.


It's a rather silly reason to run away, especially since genetic make-up is something out of her and her parents' control, but it's enough to make Balto be truthful about what he's been so afraid of. He even admits to Jenna that they should have told her sooner, though one wonders what Aleu would have done if she learned of her heritage at an early age. Maybe she wouldn't have run off in anger and probably would have accepted her quarter-wolf blood better? Who knows? It's all speculation of what could have been, but if things didn't happen the way they did actually happen, Aleu's true calling may have never been realized or they may have happened a little or much differently than "Wolf Quest" played out.

Either way, this section of her story follows the typical "Call to Adventure" well - Aleu's near-death experience with a gun leads her to learn the real reason why she will never be adopted by a human, and her anger leads her away from her father's watchful eyes and into the wild unknowns of Alaska, outside of Nome.



2: Refusal of the Call

The refusal of the call is typical - it usually happens after receiving the Call, but out of fear of a new change or for some other personal reasons [which could be anything, honestly], the hero chooses to not follow the call.



Aleu's refusal is as simple as a single line - "I'm not a wolf." Her denial of her wilder roots is obvious, given that her father refused to let her know about it sooner. Also, it seems that she was never told of her wolf heritage or that she looked like a wolf by anyone that looked at her - her mother, her babysitter, her playmates, not even her siblings or other humans - prior to the hunter incident.

However, it isn't until after her encounter with Muru [see "Supernatural Aid" below], that she begins to change her mind and eventually accepts her call. The Acceptance of the Call is a lesser known section of the "Hero's Journey", but it's rarely mentioned. After meeting Muru, Aleu is even given a single parting sentence from him that probably made her think about what to do next:

Muru: Have faith and trust in yourself... and make the journey.



Her words to her father after escaping the bear are enough proof that she has a reason to be out here, thus officially accepting the quest Muru mentioned:

Aleu: I don't wanna go home... not until I find out who I am.
Balto: That's ridicious, Aleu. You know who you are.
Aleu: No, I know  what I am, but not who I am... and I'm not stopping until I find out.



3: Supernatural Aid

Every hero runs into something unexplainable and strange during their journey. Usually they are in the form of a guide to help the hero arrive where they are meant to be, but also they can be a form of assistance throughout the journey.


"Wolf Quest" is a story that is chock full of supernatural elements, so this is just another simple part of her journey, one that she doesn't begin to notice until after her refusal.


The first is her spirit guide, a simple brown field mouse named Muru. His task in her journey is to bring out what Aleu's quest is: to discover who she is and what she is meant to do with her life. He also tells her the basics about spirit guides and how they work, yet he never specifies that he is actually her own guide. One could say that most likely Muru is indeed some sort of a guide for her, given how their conversation goes before Muru's "Who You Really Are" song:

Aleu: I'm not a wolf.
Muru: Oh! Then that is why I'm not afraid of you. Why should I be afraid of one who does not know who she is?
Aleu: I know who I am - I am Aleu, daughter of Balto and Jenna, who happens to be a purebred husky. Who are you?
Muru: I am Muru, son of Kahu and Quillac - both of them simple field mice. This answer tells us what we are, but not who we are.
Aleu: Okay, then how do I find out who I am? [...] What... are you doing? Wow...
Muru: I am shedding light... where darkness lies. [...] When every creature in the world is born, a spirit stands beside them.
Aleu: Why?
Muru: To light their way through the long, dark night... and sing them songs to guide them.
Aleu: Why?
Muru: Because each of us has a destiny that sets us all apart. The path is different for you and me, but the journey begins in the heart.



Not only does Aleu witness some assistance, but also her father, Balto, experiences some supernatural beings through his dreams [though they begin some time before Aleu was even born] as well as in the form of the animal totems while on his personal quest to find his little runaway. Of course, the totems - the fox, the wolverines and the bear - as well as the raven that they both follow, are all actually the Great Spirit Aniu in disguise.


Also both Aleu and Balto have followed a mysterious raven once they arrived into the wilderness. Aleu's encounter led her to the cave where she eventually met Muru, while Balto's first led him to the totem spirits. He was guided to the fox on the log bridge, and once Aleu joined him, they were guided to the territory of the wolf pack, though neither of them knew why. The raven seemed to be on the side of the father and daughter when Nuk, Yak and Sumac attacked them, and it even reminded Balto, Aleu and Niju that the clan needed a leader after breaking up their pointless fighting. Of course, in the end, the raven revealed itself as the white wolf spirit Aniu only to Balto, mainly because she also is the spirit of his white wolf mother.


Even Aleu herself has a couple of supernatural moments where her eyes glow an unnatural gold and she apparently sees something. The first time was when she saw the thoughts of the bear, which stood for "inner knowing" as Balto learned. The bear apparently showed her a safe ledge under a nearby cliff, and though Aleu wasn't too sure about trusting the advice ["I hope you're right..."], she did so anyway, saving both herself and her father's lives in the process. She explains to her father what happened, though it's probably confusing to them both:

Balto: You knew the ledge was here.
Aleu: Yeah, I did... sorta.
Balto: How?
Aleu: I looked at the bear - No... I looked at its thoughts... and I saw it.



The second time was once Balto and Aleu had arrived in the wolf pack and her father was speaking with the leader about how Balto would be his successor. Meanwhile, Aleu's eyes glow as she catches a glimpse of a herd of caribou crossing a group of broken pieces of ice on top of water. Confused after her eyes return to normal, she hears the two males speaking, though one could think it speaks more about Aleu than of Balto:

Balto: I had these dreams, but I don't even know what they mean.
Nava: Each of us has an unique gift. Perhaps your dreams show us the way.



Speaking of Nava, one could also say that the elder leader of the wolf pack could also be seen as a source of supernatural ability. It is shown that he can communicate with animals [his motions to the orca caused Niju to back down from harming Balto and Aleu], disappear into a mist of light fog to avoid an attack, and even fuse into trees by "becoming one with them" [I know, it's odd - go with it]. Obviously these are not normal wolf qualities; one could say that he is like the raven and the other totems and is actually the Great Spirit Aniu as well. Nothing is explained, so he may or may not be - make your own conclusion about him as you will.

There is one ability that Nava shares with Balto, and soon with Aleu: receiving dream visions. The Great Aniu, the white wolf spirit as before, communicates with all three of them at one point, which all leads to the eventual climax.

Nava's dreams are of Aniu telling him a couple of important things:

1)The wolves' source of food, the caribou, has crossed the Great Water [the salt-water ocean] near their land and will not return. It's specific enough, so there's nothing to explain.

2) In order to survive, the clan needs to cross the Great Water as well, but they will be led by "one who is wolf and does not know". Basically, it means a stranger to their pack will lead them and takes Nava's place as the alpha wolf. When Balto and Aleu arrive on their territory, Nava says that he "sent for them", as if he knew they were coming. Perhaps he and Aniu plotted for the right wolves [er, wolfdogs, in this case] to head for their territory? Who knows. Both characters are mysterious, but it makes sense.

3) The time to cross the Great Water will arrive with the "Great Breaking of the Ice", though this part he doesn't understand what it means until it actually happens.



Unlike Nava's dreams, Balto's are more... confusing and harder to decipher, even though Aniu does speak to him the night after Aleu runs away. Most of his dreams feature the raven and him running on top of ice while the raven chases and seems to engulf him. He does see wolves and hear his beloved's voice at one point, but most of his dreams focus on the ice and the raven. Again, one of his dreams focuses on Aniu telling him about the animal totems that will guide him to his daughter.


Aleu, unfortunately, only has one dream vision; it's even worse when it starts out like one of Balto's dreams, but then they show Aleu waking up and her father still fast asleep. Her dream describes the "Great Breaking of the Ice" - ice floes coming together to form a bridge for creatures to cross - as well as the fact that the caribou took an earlier bridge across similar ice floes. Still, her dreams were enough to make not only Nava and Balto, but also the rest of the clan realize that in order to survive, they had to cross the ice bridge while it was in front of them.



4: Crossing the First Threshold

When our hero "crosses the first threshold",  they physically leave the world they know and venture into the unknown world.


After running away nonstop from her father's grounded trawler, Aleu wonders aloud, "Where do I belong?" and this is basically what could be considered as her true call to adventure. Knowing that no human would probably ever adopt her into a loving home like what had happened with her siblings, she is unsure of where to find her place and basically, she ends up walking blindly about for a while, seeking... something. She evens admits this aloud after a long period of just roaming about in the mountainous cliffs:

Aleu: What am I doing? I'm running away, but I have no idea where I'm going.



Then again, this shows how naive and sheltered Aleu has been, thanks to her father's overprotectiveness. Thankfully right after this scene, she receives the guidance that she seeks and makes the choice not to go back home until her "who I am" purpose is discovered.

It's interesting to note that Aleu's "crossing" actually takes place much earlier than it usually does in the typical monomyth fashion. One could say that when Aleu joins the wolf pack as their new leader could also be considered as a point of "crossing" for Aleu, but that move has a bigger role in the next part.



5: Belly of the Whale

This part is considered as either the end of the "Departure" stage or the start of the "Initiation" stage of the Hero's Journey. Either way, our hero is like Jonah from the Bible [probably whom the act is named for] in which he or she is completely separated from the world they once knew as well as what they once were. It is possible that the internal and personal struggles our hero goes through during this time will lead to major changes or a metamorphosis later in the journey as they accept their newfound path and soon emerge as someone new.


The beginning of this stage for Aleu could be in a couple of points near the ending of the film:


- She arrives on the ice block with the other wolves in the clan and accepts her destiny as their new leader: It's one of those moments when the wolves actually help her out, almost if they also accept her as well, and in response, she accepts them and their life with a single howl toward the heavens. It's also noteworthy that a couple of the wolves that help her up onto to ice block are two of Niju's former cronies that she had fought at their arrival to the clan's territory, so this is a changing moment for both sides.


- Her farewell to her father before going to the wolves: The moment is like a final goodbye for the two of them, especially since Balto's main motivation was to bring her daughter home [as well as to make sure she's safe, as she tells the totem spirits] and Aleu's was to find her place in the world, where she belonged. One could say that they both found what they searched for in the end, though in Balto's case, he ended up going back to Nome without her.


- The long swim between her father and the wolf clan: It could be this point, as the water can be seen like a "bridge" between the world that the wolves and even Balto and Aleu knew [even though they only knew about it for a day's time]  and the unknown world where the caribou now chose to stay. By the size of the ice bridge and how long of a journey the swim was, it's definitely one of those lengths that would be difficult to cross again, unless by some divine intervention or another ice floe [as impossible as that seems to be given that the caribou will not return again, says Aniu via Nava's dreams].



What is known canonically of Aleu's journey ends with her acceptance of the destiny that she feels was meant for her and that she was willing to leave the comforts of her puphood home behind for a harder life that she barely knew anything about. This could be considered as some sort of a change for Aleu because of how much she originally didn't like being referred as a wolf when she was only a quarter-wolf yet now she doesn't mind living the wolf lifestyle as their leader.

Unfortunately, we don't fully know if this causes a bigger change for her in the future as the movie ends with her and the pack howling as their ice floe drifts further away from their homeland and into the unknown land where the caribou and a new life await them.



As for the other stages of Aleu's own "Hero's Journey", those are left for the fans to decide. Many fanfictions do continue her journey, and surprisingly a few good fics seem to unknowingly follow the "Hero's Journey" formula as one day, she does reach that level of greatness that Nava told Balto at the movie's end she would eventually achieve.


But wait a minute... what about Balto's journey? He's a hero too, isn't he?

Yes, he's had his parts to play, and surely he's a decent example of someone that has been on his own "Hero's Journey"... though, as most of his journey could have taken place prior to or in the duration of the first movie. One could say that it continues in the two sequels somehow, but explaining his "Hero's Journey" will have to wait for another article...


[finished 6/11/13 - Juuchan17]


Information Used:

Wikipedia - "Monomyth": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth

The Hero's Journey Defined [Anthony Ubelhor]: http://www.uky.edu/~aubel2/eng104/myth/hero.pdf

Heroes of History - The Heroic Monomyth: http://library.thinkquest.org/05aug/00212/monomyth.html

Hero's Journey: http://changingminds.org/disciplines/storytelling/plots/hero_journey/hero_journey.htm

Unofficial "Balto II: Wolf Quest" Transcript: personally transcribed by Juuchan17

"Balto II: Wolf Quest" Screenshots: personally taken by Juuchan17, credit to Universal Cartoon Studios

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August 13, 2020
Usa Is not currently on the site
Wow, What an interesting article!
I never cared much for Aleu, but that was a surface reaction to her, Now I want to re-watch the movie with this new perspective you've given me.

September 04, 2013
Usa Female Is not currently on the site
WQ > Balto > WoC
>DT: I've only seen the animated movies [just "The Hobbit" and "LOTR", but I don't remember that much about them], but I hear the live-action films are really good and the books are even better. When I get some time, I'll check them out.

Well, I usually don't use a standard analysis formula [and I've been reviewing animated stuff for a few years!], but I like the Plugged-In formula as well. Would I personally use it? Highly unlikely... but yeah, I agree that this analysis stuff is something fun. At least now it's fun. XD

Well, that and her character really didn't get a chance to do much of anything until she ran away. All we saw of her early on was being a puppy, being Balto's favored pup [the shot where she's on his head proves it, in my opinion], and her thing about howling like a wolf that annoyed others. I guess that was all to judge her by until Aleu was actually given time to shine as a character.

It's no problem! I still wonder what the writers were thinking when they wrote the plot though. It's like a typical sequel with the child running away to unknowingly become like their parents, but it's a bit different, and I like that.

- Juuchan17

September 03, 2013
Usa Male Is not currently on the site
Yeah, that's the impression I got concerning LOTR too, although I confess my main knowledge of it was a book on tape, and the quality was pretty bad. One of these days I must get around to reading the books on paper. I have read The Hobbit, though, and it was good (and funny). Tolkein was a scholar of classical myths, and it certainly shows in his work.

I know what you mean. I often use the Plugged In formula myself, only that focuses less on overall storytelling and more on "What are kids going to get out of this?" Most people hate analyzing stories but I think it's fun - unless you're required to do it *coughschoolstinkscough*

Ah, now I see what you mean. Yeah, I guess before she grew up there wasn't really much focus on her actions.

I'm not surprised; a lot of people find themselves drifting into formulas when they write just because certain things just work.

Glad you enjoyed my feedback. :)

September 03, 2013
Usa Female Is not currently on the site
WQ > Balto > WoC
>DT: Thanks so much! I might have to check that book out, though I have yet to read the "Lord of the Rings" books. I do hear that they follow this formula well and is one of the best examples of it well executed.

I'm not sure why I felt drawn to analyzing the movies like this, but after rewatching and noticing so many little details, it's hard not to feel that it's following some sort of concept.

I'll be honest, I don't think I caught that part, about Aleu being judged. I think what I was going for was talking about the character prior to their journey [the characteristics were what you were talking about, right?], and for Aleu, she was seen [by her father] as a pup that had to be protected because of her differences and lack of skills. He soon changed his judgment as they both traveled on her journey, but he had to grow too... but I'm getting ahead of myself. It'll make sense once the second part of this article is posted because Balto's journey makes sense once it gets to this point.

Again, I'm glad you appreciate that I'm basically breaking down her character and trying to explain her journey that the writers wrote for "Wolf Quest". I've never read "The Hero of a Thousand Faces" myself, but I'm just using literary websites that describe and break down the whole monomyth formula. Shoot, I highly doubt that this was the writers' original intention for Balto 2, but that's probably just me being the fan that I am for looking through the film like this.

- Juuchan17

September 03, 2013
Usa Male Is not currently on the site
I don't think I've seen any work of fiction analyzed with this kind of perspective or thoughtfulness since the last time I read "Finding God in The Hobbit" (really great book, by the way; you'd love it, I'm sure). I admit I'm not familiar with "Hero of a Thousand Faces," but you've done a very in-depth analysis on the plot and her development.

The only thing I disagree about - and perhaps my unfamiliarity with the patterns you cited is the reason for this - is the part where you suggest that Aleu was not judged by her actions. She was, in the end.

Balto, although he initially didn't show much confidence in Aleu, ultimately judged her in a positive sense when he decided to let her go. By his actions, he was saying that she was old enough to stand on her own. How did he reach that conclusion? By watching what she did. The wolf pack ultimately judged her on the same criteria. Lastly (and I concede that this may not quite fit what "The Hero of a Thousand Faces" meant), you just wrote a pretty lengthy article looking at her and drawing conclusions about her based largely on what she did in the course of the story.

June 13, 2013
Usa Female Is not currently on the site
WQ > Balto > WoC
>Skul: Thanks so much! I didn't notice this connection until about a month ago, and I'd been writing this article on and off ever since! Besides this site could use some good informative articles lately, and I haven't been doing much for the site in general. Might as well talk about something that intrigues me, right?

>XArcticGx: You're very welcome! I'm glad I've helped you see this film in a bit of a whole new light!

- Juuchan17

June 13, 2013
Usa Male Is not currently on the site
Thanks for sharing this. My opinion of WQ has improved.

June 12, 2013
Usa Male Is not currently on the site
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Very insightful, and full of great new information on the subject. I noticed some of these elements - but definitely not all that you pointed out. Good article, Juuchan!

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