Yes, yes, there’s Willem Dafoe, but Ericson Core’s moving historical drama “Togo” is a canine-obsessed affair. And why shouldn’t it be? The Disney+ original joins a long line of classic predecessors like “Balto,” “Iron Will,” “White Fang,” and a ballooning number of “Call of the Wild” adaptations (another one is on the way next year, starring Harrison Ford), though this one has a bit more on its mind than the rest of its doggy brethren. While even casual dogsledding fans likely know the name of Balto — a brave sled dog who inspired both his own animated franchise (from Universal Pictures, not Disney) and a popular statue in Central Park — few are familiar with Togo, arguably the real hero of the so-called “Great Race of Mercy.”
Impressive special effects, a warm performance by Dafoe, and an ungodly amount of cute pups raise the film a cut above Disney+’s other recent offerings, and Core’s drama seems poised to break out as the streaming service’s first true crowdpleasing hit. Tom Flynn’s screenplay wedges in a hefty amount of fact-based drama (with a few curious tweaks), and while those elements will likely prove less appealing to younger viewers, the human demands and the canine cost of the quest to secure diphtheria-fighting serum during a horrific Alaska winter are the stuff of classic drama. Dafoe stars as legendary breeder and musher Leonhard Seppala (who helped normalize the use of Siberian Huskies beyond their Native American roots) as he sets out on a 600-mile journey to obtain the medicine needed to save the children of his adopted hometown of Nome, Alaska.
But “Togo” is really about just that: Leonhard’s wondrous lead dog Togo, a true underdog who saves the day, even when beset by harrowing circumstances that would fell a lesser pack. “Togo” opens in the midst of the epidemic, with most of the town’s children quarantined and awaiting a cure that might never come. While Leonhard and his plucky wife Constance (a reliably great Julianne Nicholson) don’t have their own child to worry about (one of few tweaks to the story that rankle; the Seppalas actually did have an ill young daughter), “Togo” makes the case that it’s up to Leonhard to help his community simply because he is a member of it.
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As Leonhard, Togo, and the team set out on a quest that could easily end in failure, death, or worse, Flynn’s screenplay flips back in time to Togo’s doggie youth. Ill, underweight, and chronically mischievous, he’s hardly Leonhard’s first pick for a sled dog, but Constance’s affection for the little pup can’t be denied. “They’re not pets, they’re not our friends, they’re not our children, they’re animals, they’re work animals,” Leonhard lectures, just before Togo makes off with some other bit of disobedience. Both Leonhard and Togo are born leaders (even as a puppy, Togo incites his peers into assisting him on crazy endeavors), but their bond is not initially guaranteed. Leonhard even attempts to give the dog away, not just once, but twice, both times ending in mayhem.
“He’s more trouble than he’s worth!,” one would-be owner yells, but once Leonhard discovers that Togo’s energy really is best served on the sled, that’s no longer the case.
Togo is styled as the film’s hero — the townspeople cheer for him as the group departs, not Leonhard, but one gets the sense that neither the actor nor the character are put out by it — but while turning attention to the pup makes “Togo” more appealing to the younger set, it flattens some of the human drama at the film’s heart. So does the choice to simplify how the Great Race actually played out: It sets up Leonhard as the sole musher to make the journey, and then reveals a relay of other mushers, all tapped to turn the dire journey into easier segments. While the shock revelation picks up some mid-movie slack, it also adds an unnecessary kink in a film that wants to set some of the historical record straight.
Balto, who led the team that completed the final leg of the race (and yes, he does appear in the film), has long been heralded as the primary dog hero, but it’s Togo’s extraordinary mettle that made the journey possible. Stellar effects work bolster the race itself, including a harrowing scene in which the entire pack nearly goes over a steep ravine, second only to a horrifying sequence that sees the crew zipping across the crumbling ice of the Norton Sound (arguably the most well-known element of Seppala and Togo’s quest, though the film adds some extra drama) and nearly dying in the process. (Dafoe reportedly learned to dogsled to play the role, and that commitment and veracity shine through.) The long stretches of sledding might prove wearing to some, but they’re impressively filmed, and they capture the fear and foreboding of the situation, plus the absolute skill of both Leonhard and his pups.
And yet the film really hits hard when it leans more into the emotion of it all, from Togo’s incredibly adorable puppyhood (break out the awards for canine acting ASAP) to more trying moments on the trail. Good luck not getting choked up when a shaken Leonhard cuddles Togo and his team after a tough trek, yelping out cries of “Good dog! Good dogs, all!” Those elements are also what help power a somewhat unexpected final half hour that chronicles what happened after the ostensible victory that was the Great Race.
While another film (cough, “Balto,” cough) would have concluded with delivering the serum and saving the children (a good ending, to be sure), Core follows Togo and the Seppalas in the days after the journey. The lingering possibility that Togo may have run his last haunts Leonhard (and will likely break a few young viewers’ hearts along the way), but it speaks to the film’s grasp on serving up reality and truth, even when it hurts. The record may favor Balto, but both he — and his animated franchise — have some stiff competition from the charms of Togo.
“Togo” will be available to stream on Disney+ starting December 20.