The Disney+ exclusive film Togo is certainly the best original movie on the nascent streaming service, although considering their original film content is barely half a dozen feature length movies that isn’t a very deep field. Still, Togo is a solid, heartfelt movie about an old man and his dog in the early 20th Century wilds of Alaska. On the surface it’s comparable to the recently released Disney/Fox movie Call of the Wild but while that movie got stuck in an uncanny valley of its CGI dog hero, Togo is a superior effort. Also the CGI dogs here are used for action scenes and not the entire freakin’ movie like that weird looking mut in Call of the Wild was. The story is a bit simple; angsty guy has his heart gradually melted by a lovable rapscallion of a free-spirited animal as they bond together on an adventure, but Togo hits the emotional notes rather eloquently as the finale is downright stirring.
In the 1920s, Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe) is a dog sled trainer and racer living with his wife Constance (Julianne Nicholson) and their faithful lead dog, the irrepressible Togo. When a diphtheria outbreak infects a local town the townsfolk ask Seppala to get the precious medical serum from miles away. But the journey is long and perilous and while Seppala has the utmost confidence in his lead dog Togo, flashbacks show how things weren’t always rosy between them. Now they need to save lives but with a legendary storm raging across the land it just might take everything they have left.
Bonus points for Togo being based upon a true story that is actually a true story and not some vague “inspired by true events” malarkey. As the title cards at the end tell, this is a corner of history that had gone remarkably underserved with the credit in the newspapers in 1920s going to a team and dog that didn’t do the incredible amount of work that Togo and Seppala did. Heck, even the dog that got the fame originally, Balto, has his own statue and even animated cartoon movie in the mid-90s (with the dog voiced by Kevin Bacon and two direct to video spin offs!). So it’s neat to see that almost 100 years later Togo and his master get their own feature film memorialization.
Willem Dafoe puts in probably one of his most human and caring performances which is a interesting contrast to the complete crazy guy he played recently in The Lighthouse. Flashbacks with him and the puppy Togo have him amusingly annoyed which makes the present day scenes where it is shown he genuinely loves Togo more impactful. Dafoe get in a few great moments throughout, like a spirited monologue about how strong his dog team is while their odds of survival on a cracking ice river are against them.
A lot of the character from Togo is based upon the flashbacks where it’s shown how innovative he is, often escaping from confinement with ease. While it does stretch plausibility it never becomes a bad cartoon like Call of the Wild did. There are some obvious moments when the dogs are visual effects but it works, like a very cool scene when Togo is pulling the team across a frozen river that is rapidly breaking apart. It descends a bit into an unreal VFX sequence by the end as the team is basically stuck on one big flow of ice that would never support them in reality, but it is a gripping bit of action.
The fact that the dogsled team is carrying critical medicine to save the town’s sick children is a bit shamelessly manipulative but cutting back to a hospital adds a sense of jeopardy. The visual style bounces between warm flashback scenes and the cold, bitter reality of the team stuck in the storm, and while some of the closeups seem a bit CGI tweaked, it gives the movie a painterly type of feel. The music by Mark Isham is appropriately sweeping and hits especially hard in the movie’s closing moments with a string motif that elevates the emotional power.
Most of the movie is Dafoe and the dog and they carry it admirably. Still, there are some other humans, the second most pronounced would be Nicholson playing the wife who sees something special in the spirited pup Togo. And while the husband and wife don’t have overtly romantic scenes, they have a good chemistry simply showing that they love each other by just being comfortable, making their relationship seem realistic. Michael McElhatton plays one of the town elders who sets Seppala off on his journey, delivering exposition with maximum gravitas. There’s also Seppala’s buddy, Dan (Nikolai Nikolaeff), who pops up every once in awhile to say how great the dog is, which the audience would know by simply watching the dog be awesome all the time.
Togo is a surprise of a film that manages to wring a lot of emotion out of mostly one guy nattering at his dog. Dafoe’s curmudgeonly nature works well because since this cold guy eventually feels something for the dog it makes their potentially deadly journey more dramatic. This is ultimately a hopeful story that may be a bit transparent with its emotional manipulation but by the end it soars.