PLOT: This is the inspirational true story of an unlikely sled dog who, in 1925, led a team to deliver a life saving serum after an epedemic plagued a small Alaskan community.
REVIEW: There are those of you who probably well up with tears at movies that explore the relationship between a man and his dog. I’d assume this is especially true if you’re a dog owner yourself. Oftentimes, those movies tend to be heavily manipulative and overly sentimental, practically mocking you if you don’t break down in tears. And honestly, that type of filmmaking tends to be a little frustrating for this viewer. Yes, we know bad things will probably happen, and we’re going to make you feel so damn terrible when the ending finally hits. Frankly, this was exactly what I had anticipated with the upcoming Disney+ feature TOGO. This particular tale is a based on a true story, and it’s certainly one that would tug at your heartstrings and put your tear ducts through the ringer. While it clearly is that kind of movie, it’s also far better than your run-of-the-mill story about the human connection to man’s best friend. In fact, it’s more than a little inspiring.
Willem Dafoe is Leonhard Seppala, a man who is known to be a knowledgable trainer for sled dogs. When he and his wife Constance (Julianne Nicholson) take in a undersize, wild and incorrigible pup, they find that this little fella plays by his own rules. No matter what they do, or who they try to offer the dog to, he always comes back. As the dog gets older, they soon realize that he is worth much more to them than expected. In fact, this pup who they name Togo soon proves that he is a leading sled dog, one that is smart and fast, and one that has incredible instincts. When a very important mission comes along, all the years of training Togo has been through prove to be a worthwhile dedication when Togo and his team must face off against a massive storm in hopes to retrieve a life saving serum. The story of Seppala and his loyal friend spans nearly two decades, all leading up to one incredible adventure.
TOGO may have everything you’d expect from a generic true life tale of heroism presented by Walt Disney, but it’s also quite ambitious. This made for streaming feature directed by Ericson Core is beautifully photographed and it features a few heart pounding moments. One sequence finds Togo leading Seppala and the team across a massive body of water covered in ice. This shortcut would take a day off of this very important journey Seppala finds himself on, but it’s also incredibly risky. As the ice cracks beneath them, Togo leads with tenacity and heroism. This is an exceptional sequence. In fact, there are several moments that bring you to the edge of your seat that almost leave you wondering if they can possibly make it out alive. Considering the importance of this mission, it’s impossible to not root for this man and his incredible team of sled dogs.
Aside from the impressive visuals, this would’ve never worked as well as it does without the amazing talent that both Dafoe and Nicholson bring to Leonhard and Constance. This is a stirring and emotional love story. It’s also smart enough to give Julianne a bit more to do than just be the doting wife at home. However, as much as it’s their romantic and touching fable, it’s also a beautiful exploration of the relationship between Seppala and Togo. The performances from both the film’s leads are wonderfully truthful, without drowning out any real emotion with false sentimentality. As fantastic as Dafoe was in THE LIGHTHOUSE, his take on this man is touching and heartfelt. The same can be said for Julianne. In lesser hands, her role may not have had the impact that she ultimately does here. Even if nothing else worked, the love that these two create on-screen is simple and honest.
In all fairness, this is a film I’ve had the opportunity to re-watch and I’m glad I did. The first time it didn’t have quite as strong of an impact, perhaps because I had expected it to be a bit more sappy and schmaltzy. However, returning to this story, the emotional connection was far more profound on second glance. Walking into a Disney film about an animal, you best prepare for some serious sadness that will happen. And if you are aware of this particular true story, you’ll have an idea as to how high the stakes really were. However, TOGO isn’t a manipulative mess. In fact, it’s a refined and sweet story that will connect with the entire family. And considering all that is going on – a beloved dog getting older and sick children who may die without a serum – the film manages to avoid being the painfully sappy silliness that it could’ve been.
As an early original feature film for Disney+, TOGO is an impressive example of the kind of quality that we can look forward to. And yes, it’s the most daring and awe-inspiring original film that the channel has yet to offer. The locations and the cinematography are stunning, the detail to the period is quite good, as is the score, and the two leads are as good as you could possibly hope. Dafoe continues to prove he is one of the most intriguing actors working today, and Nicholson is fantastic as the woman who stands by him. The two are exceptional together, and their relationship with these dogs, especially the ones that play Togo, will warm even the coldest of hearts. TOGO premieres this coming Friday, and whether you are a dog lover or not, there is much to admire in this exciting and emotional real life drama.