In 1925 Alaska a diphtheria outbreak sends musher Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe) and his dogs on a last-ditch mission to bring home an anti-serum. For 12 year-old lead dog Togo, it may be his final journey.
The 1925 diphtheria outbreak in Nome, Alaska, had already been adapted for cinema in Simon Wells’ 1995 animated film Balto. This live-action take, directed by Ericson Core and starring Willem Dafoe, is a more grounded and respectful adaptation of the events. It sidelines the lead dog Balto in favour of Togo – the lead of a separate leg of the 20-team emergency relay, and the one that led by far the longest stretch of the hazardous journey.
Much has been written over the years about the death of the mid-budget feature. In a highly competitive industry, American film has effectively been split down the middle. There remains a lucrative market for tent-pole blockbusters and event films, as well as for low-budget independents, however anything between has found itself without a profitable path to market. This has been particularly true of Disney, where massively expensive franchise pictures have overtaken everything else – and where a film is unlikely to exist that is not a Marvel or Star Wars sequel, an animated feature, or a live-action adaptation of one. For a company that made its reputation with moderately budgeted family-oriented adventure, drama, and comedy films, it has been rather depressing to see.
Togo shows off a solution to that problem, in that a mid-range adventure film can find a home via streaming video. Released directly to Disney+, and bypassing a theatrical release, Togo is exactly the kind of high quality, family friendly production with which past generations grew up. Assuming its release inspires further product in the old style, it is a way for Disney to effectively have its cake and eat it too.
What seems like a straight-forward Arctic adventure gains much more depth thanks to a series of well-placed flashbacks. They illuminate the relationship between Seppala (Dafoe) – a hardened musher who treats his dogs more like tools than pets – and Togo – the runt of a litter than grows up to be a strong-willed and independently-minded dog. While it is a familiar story, it is one told very well and with a great deal of charm and heart. The film benefits enormously from Dafoe’s presence: he is such a beautifully committed actor, and fills Seppala with a wealth of power and emotion. As Seppala’s wife Constance Julianne Nicholson offers a wonderfully compassionate and warm counterpoint. Together they go a long way towards making Togo the pleasing and heartfelt film that it is.
The action sequences are well-shot and emotionally stirring. At their best – including a race across breaking ice during the film’s third act – they get remarkable tense, verging on the terrifying. The film is well-staged throughout, achieving a wonderful look and tone without ever feeling over-stylised or relying too much on visual effects.
With Togo comes the satisfaction of seeing a solidly old-fashioned Hollywood adventure told in a superb manner. While it relates a familiar kind of story, it is told with an emotional truth and a strong central core. Strong production values and performances give it a particular strength. This may not be a film to break any conventions or up-end audience expectations, but as a family-oriented feature with a charming dog it is absolutely wonderful. In these somewhat-troubled times it feels like a proper tonic.