If Disney wants to just keep investing in good dog movies for Disney+, I am more than okay with that business strategy. One of the streaming service’s launch titles was a live-action adaptation of Lady and the Tramp, and that movie is fine. For those looking for something a little more substantial but still in the lane of family-friendly entertainment, we now have Ericson Core’s Togo. The film follows the true story of lead sled dog Togo and his musher Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe). While Balto gets a lot of credit for the 1925 serum run because he finished the relay, it was Togo and Seppala who conquered the longest and arguably hardest part of the journey. However, Core’s movie is less interested in the particulars of the serum run than it is in the bond between Togo and Leonhard, which makes for a more emotionally resonant story, especially if you love dogs.
The story begins in 1925 when diphtheria hits the small Alaskan town of Nome. The only way to get the serum safely from Fairbanks is via sled dog, so Seppala volunteers to make the journey. We then cut back 12 years to meet lead sled dog, Togo, as a puppy. Seppala doesn’t get along with Togo, who he sees as mischievous, untrainable, and a nuisance, but his loving wife Constance (Julianne Nicholson) can’t bear to let the dog go. For Seppala, dogs are a business and he can’t afford affection from them. But the determined Togo eventually shows that his grit and determination makes him perfect not for a pack dog, but for a lead dog. While Leonhard is initially ecstatic at the prospect of finding a use for Togo, he begins to see Togo as more than just a useful creature.
If you’re looking for a story about the intricacies of the Nome serum run, you’d probably be better served going elsewhere. There are a few details along the way along with an explanation of why people know the name “Balto” more than “Togo”, but Core’s movie isn’t really all that concerned with relitigating that event because while it may be historically interesting, it doesn’t have the emotional resonance of the relationship between Seppala and Togo. That’s where the movie lives and why it’s successful.
For those who aren’t dog-lovers, you may have trouble getting into the groove of the movie, especially when Togo is a puppy and being mischievous. But for me, a guy who loves dogs and has one of his own, I thought those scenes were a blast. Watching puppies be mischievous is kind of a license to print money because you get the fun of watching them misbehave without having to clean up afterwards. So, for example, when Seppala tries to keep Togo in the barn after Togo has dug out of his enclosure again, it’s joyous to see Togo knock over a bunch of things before escaping through a window. If your dog actually did those things, it would be stressful, but as it’s framed in Togo, it’s just part of his willful personality and can you really blame him for just wanting to run with the pack?
The film also makes the wise move of casting Dafoe. I think we greatly underappreciate Dafoe simply because he’s been around for so long and is so consistently good in everything. Togo is a testament not only to his professionalism (some actors would probably be salty for being in a film named after the dog rather than the lead actor), but to the decency he brings to his roles. Dafoe clearly has range (you can see him playing a total bonkers role this year in The Lighthouse), but his work in Togo is reminiscent of his recent Oscar-nominated turn in The Florida Project where he just emanates human decency. Even when Seppala is trying to get rid of Togo by trying to get other families to adopt him, we don’t hate him for it. We see that he’s a guy whose business is breeding and sledding dogs, and he thinks Togo is a disruption to that business. Where Togo shines is showing how Seppala comes to not only respect Togo but love him.
There’s a feeling that most dog owners should know where you come home and your dog has done something bad. Your immediate reaction is frustration and disappointment that he went through the garbage or knocked something over. And then you look at your dog and you just can’t stay mad because they’re so darn lovable. Togo exists in that feeling. Yes, there’s adventure and acts of heroism, but what makes Togo special is how it respects that unique bond between a dog and their person. If you don’t know or care about that feeling, then you probably won’t feel much connection to this movie. But for everyone else, Togo is well worth your time.