Thus far, Disney+’s offerings in the original films realm has been somewhat lackluster. While neither Lady and the Tramp nor Noelle are complete disasters, both feel like movies that were dumped on the streaming platform rather than being made for it. The third time, however, appears to be the charm, as the newest film exclusive to Disney+, Ericson Core’s Togo, is exactly the sort of featuere that the service should be producing: stories that are a bit smaller in scope, but lack nothing when it comes to emotional impact.
In 1925, a diphtheria outbreak has paralyzed the remote town of Nome, Alaska. The virus has mostly afflicted the town’s children, and while an anti-toxin is available, it’s located nearly 700 miles away. Complicating matters further, a massive storm is coming in, which makes airlifting the serum impossible. With no other options, the town turns to champion dogsled racer Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe) and his lead dog, Togo, to make the trip as fast as possible.
The race for the medicine is the primary drama of Togo, but the trip also acts as a framing device. Sep, as he is called by his friends, is off on his cross-country trip almost as soon as Togo starts up, and so our introduction to the man and the dog comes in the form of flashbacks that break up the journey.
We see how Togo was the most unlikely choice to become a sled dog, much less a leader of a pack, and how Sep was slowly won over by the unruly pup.
Togo is simple, straightforward, and heartwarming.
There are two relationship stories that are key to Togo, with the first being between the musher and his lead dog. Willem Dafoe is in his element here. Nobody plays a curmudgeon quite like Dafoe, and here he gets to be every bit the angry old crank while being lovable along the way. His emotional bond with a dog as single-minded as he himself is will cut right to the core of most viewers. Togo is equal parts co-worker, pet and child to Sep, and if you’ve ever held any of those things dear to you, you’ll find yourself just as attached.
You don’t get to be a somebody who spends as much time, or more, with dogs than people in the wilderness of Alaska without being at least a little bit nuts, though, and that’s other thing Willem Dafoe is especially good at playing. The actor’s particular brand of crazy plays perfectly for the large stretches of the film when he’s the only human being on screen. Dafoe never falters to keep your attention.
The other important relationship in Togo is between Sep and his wife Constance (Julianne Nicholson). Nicholson’s performance is largely the highlight of Togo if only because it’s so unexpected. She’s the one who first bonds with the dog and winds up waging a hilarious cold war with her husband over the animal during the flashbacks, and who fears for the safety of both of them while they fight the elements on their dangerous mission.
She’s not just sitting at at home waiting around to see how it all turns out either. Constance is a perfectly capable frontierswoman who has clearly had to do a lot on her own, and she’s as fearless as her husband. She also has some of the best lines in the script.
If you haven’t heard Willem Dafoe quoting Shakespeare from the back of a dogsled in a blizzard, you haven’t lived.
The conversation about performances in Togo is incomplete without talking about Togo himself. After a pair of Disney movies where animals talk like people, it feels so refreshing to see a dog in a movie that’s just a dog. He’s no less entertaining and sympathetic simply because he’s real. It’s actually much easier to feel a connection with the animal because he’s simply an animal. And yes, he’s also cute as hell.
In a time when the Disney theatrical schedule is dominated by projects that are going to make $1 billion at the global box office, Togo is exactly the sort of movie that needed a place like Disney+ to thrive. While some of the sweeping shots of the Alaskan wilderness, and a couple of exciting sequences on a frozen lake would probably look amazing on the big screen, the core impact of it isn’t lost on a smaller one. Rather, it’s allowed to thrive.
While the sleddog race against the clock is exciting, Togo is ultimately a story about connections between characters, both people and animals, and that plays at home.
Togo sets the record straight
In an odd twist, once you’ve seen Togo you also realize just how much a movie about Togo was necessary. If you know any names connected to the Serum Run to Nome, you likely know the name Balto, which was the dog that led the team on the final leg of what turned out to be a relay as Sep was in the midst of the run.
Balto is the dog that received the most credit at the time for the heroic efforts of all involved, even getting his own animated feature back in 1995, and while he certainly deserved some credit, Togo was the real hero dog, and considering the superhuman, and supercanine feats on display in this film, the movie finally gives the dog his day.
Togo is the best original film made for Disney+ so far, and while that may be faint praise for the nascent streaming service, it bodes well for what’s to come.