Togo; 2019; Directed by Ericson Core; Written by Tom Flynn; Starring Willem DaFoe, Julianne Nicholson, and a whole bunch of good doggies. PG. 1h53 minutes; Available on Disney Plus
Togo wasn’t just a good doggo, he was the BEST doggo. The new film on DisneyPlus is one of the biggest surprises of the year, and, outside of the Mandolorian, the best original fiction on the channel. Okay, the other competition is Noelle and Lady and the Tramp, but Togo is a damned fine film and deserves everyone’s attention.
In 1925 Togo was the point dog for one of the 20 relay teams who helped bring a life saving delivery of serum to Nome, Alaska. The team led by Willem DaFoe’s Leonhard Seppala. You may say you’ve seen this already, in history books and an animated film from the 1990s. Wasn’t that called Balto, not Togo? You’d be correct. Balto led the final team to make the relay, with human Gunnar Kaasen. Balto was one of Seppala’s dogs but Balto and Kaasen got all the press. However, Seppala and Togo (and their team) made a longer trek (10 times longer) and much more treacherous. Disney Plus’s original film tells this often untold tale, and give it fine justice.
I tend not to like animal movies. No, I’m not heartless. But the movies are often are cloying and cynically sentimental, but I loved Togo. Maybe because Togo didn’t talk in some manner unlike the recent spate of cutsy “famous people voicing dogs” flicks. In avoiding this trap, along with others often found in family films such as over-the-top villains or comic relief, DisneyPlus delivers a simple heartfelt story of a man and his favorite dog.
While the 1925 serum run might be a selling point of the film, it isn’t the whole. It allows us to meet and love Willem DaFoe as a tough but kindly dog trainer in Nome with his wife Constance (Julianne Nicholson bringing a real spark in what could be a thankless role); flashing back to their history with dogs and particularly Togo (of course) amid the storm-laden mushing with the serum.
The Seppella’s are wonderful characters and it was a joy to know them. They are honest, hard-working people who truly love eachother and want to do well for their dogs and community. Nicholson and DaFoe have amazing chemistry. One might question if they were as good and selfless as the movie portrays, but from the reading I did after being wowed by the film – by all accounts they were. Good to see such positive people portrayed here and not be a falsehood. Of note – they are responsible for popularizing the Siberian Husky breed in the States, when the popularization started they were named for Seppella.
Willem DeFoe is such a great actor – we all know it – but he has such great chemistry with Nicholson and the doggos. The man really gives his all, making what could be silly – an adapted Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech yelled in an accent mushing over an ice field a powerful moment. I do admit I got a perverse enjoyment from this as the reading felt like his Lighthouse character.
I rather wish Disney had put this out theatrically, as it best of the live action Disney this year. There is a true cinematic quality to the film. Ericson imbues harrowing adventure with the sledding to match the heart of the actors and dogs.
It may have been lost among the blockbusters (including Disney’s own Star Wars the Rise of Skywalker, it is worthy of the big screen treatment akin to Disney’s own early 1990s Winter Dog movies – Iron Will and White Fang. But if Fox (aka Disney) can put Call of the Wild out in February with Harrison Ford and a CGI dog, why not Willem DaFoe and a few dozen real ones?
I do wonder if the ice scenes would look better big. If I had one negative thought, the harrowing journeys across the ice looked a little off. It might be the “I know this can’t be real. Would never be allowed to film now” rather than actual quality.
Togo is a wonderful surprise – a dog-moving winning me over is a rarity. It’s a wonderful adventure with real dogs and a hell of a lot of heart.
Togo began streaming on Disney+ December 20th.