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Togo Review

December 13, 2019 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
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Togo Review  

Directed By: Ericson Core
Written By: Tom Flynn
Runtime: 152 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some peril, thematic elements and mild language

Willem Dafoe – Leonhard Seppala
Julianne Nicholson – Constance Seppala
Christopher Heyerdahl – Mayor George Maynard
Michael McElhatton – Jafet Lindeberg
Michael Greyeyes – Amituk
Shaun Benson – Gunnar

It’s easy to see why Togo went to Disney+. In the 90s or even early 00s, a Disney likely would’ve released a film like this in theaters, and it might’ve brought in a decent profit. However, the prominence of streaming media and home theaters have made more mid-level releases such as this more of a dying breed in theaters. That said, Togo is a cut above other Disney+ originals, such as the live-action Lady and the Tramp. That looked like a relatively cheap, Direct-to-Video quality release. At the very least, Togo looks like a solid production with theatrical level production values and a highly cinematic style that looks well made.

Togo is cut from a similar cloth from older 1990s Disney fare, such as White Fang and Iron Will. It’s an early 20th century story set in a wintry wilderness, and it involves a bond between a man and his dog [or wolf in the case of White Fang]. Based on the true story of the 1925 Nome, Alaska serum run, Togo seeks to tell the “untold true story” of sled musher Leonhard Seppala and his lead sled dog, Togo. In 1925, Seppala, with Togo as his lead, faced a death-defying storm in Alaska to retrieve serum to treat a deadly epidemic that was sweeping Nome, Alaska. Balto would become the dog as the lead cover hero of this story. The pooch had a statue erected in his honor at the Central Park Zoo in New York. Steven Spielberg even went on to produce a highly fictionalized animated film about him in 1995. Fans of Nostalgia Critic’s review of the Balto animated movie will likely appreciate how this film seeks to tell “true story” of Seppala and Togo’s death-defying sled run through freezing weather and intense conditions.

Granted, while Togo is billed and promoted as the “untold true story” of the 1925 serum run, it’s easy to see where the film likely embellishes various elements to make the story more harrowing and dramatic. That said, director Ericson Core provides a feasible dramatized sequence of events showing how Balto possibly became the “hero” of this story in the press instead of Seppala, Togo and the rest of his dog running team.

Togo presents a dual narrative. First, it depicts Seppala (Dafoe) taking on the unenviable task of making a 600-mile sled run to retrieve a precious serum to treat a deadly epidemic of diphtheria that is affecting the children of Nome. The second narrative presented in flashbacks is the story of Seppala developing an unwitting bond with the young pup, Togo, 12 years earlier. Togo was born the runt of the litter and with ill health. He did not have the makings of a champion sled dog. Despite a mischievous nature, Togo had an undeniable will and the makings of a champion. Eventually, Seppala comes to realize how special truly is. Despite his small stature, Togo had a heart and will that could never be trained or learned.

Dafoe is good here. It’s nice to see him playing against his usual type in the lead role. He’s a compassionate and knowledgeable outdoorsmen and dog runner. Granted, he doesn’t try to adopt some type of Alaskan/Norwegian accent, which is probably for the best. But he at least looks believable playing a man who is supposed to be a rugged Norwegian who lives in the heart of rural Alaska. Julianne Nicholson is also solid here in what could’ve been a very meandering, derivative role as Seppala’s wife, Constance. Constance is at least a strong presence throughout the film, and she’s depicted as a fairly well-rounded character. The “concerned wife” or spouse is often a thankless role in these types of stories, but she at least leaves a strong impression compared to say Holliday Grainger in The Finest Hours.

Ericson Core does a good job here in presenting a lot of impressive wilderness shots. A good deal of the film looks to have been shot on location in Calgary, Canada. So, Togo looks fairly authentic. The CG visuals look like they were generally relegated to a dangerous crossing over a frozen lake. There isn’t a copious amount of activity with badly CG-animated dogs.

Togo is no way a groundbreaking, must-see film. But it’s a solid experience that families can watch and enjoy over the holidays. It’s a story about a bond between man and dog and how the overcome the odds together. Human and canine companionship can be very special, and Togo is a nice, dramatic reminder of that.

The final score: review Good
The 411
Togo is a film that in a different time and place likely would've been released in theaters and done moderately well. As a Disney+ original movie, it's a solid viewing experience anchored by a good performance by Willem Dafoe and focusing on his bond with his lead dog, Togo. This film is a throwback to live-action Disney films of yore, similar to White Fang or Iron Will, in the time before Disney acquired such hot commodities as Star Wars and Marvel. It's worth a look if the time is available over the holidays, especially if you love dogs.