Disney+, Disney’s streaming platform, already has one pet parent-targeted film in the form of Lady & the Tramp. When Togo was announced, I assumed it would be around the same lines, pull at the heartstrings, but overall just a snow dog movie like the multiple other films on the platform like Eight Below or Iron Will. But once I hit play, I knew that Togo would be so much more.
Togo follows the untold story of the sled dog, Togo, who led the 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska that helped saved many townspeople, mostly children, during a diphtheria outbreak. This story may sound familiar, and that’s because this story is often attributed to another pup that has had his own animated film, Balto. Directed by Ericson Core, and written by Tom Flynn, Togo tells the story of the two largest figures in the Great Race of Mercy, Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe) and his dog Togo. Consisting of nearly 700 miles, the trek used multiple mushers to complete the race, but in the end, the pair ran the longest leg of almost 300 miles.
There is a high cost to their mission, but Togo is much more than just a race. When Togo is born, Seppala, the musher and dog breeder is ready to euthanize him. Togo is too small, too weak to race. At the behest of his wife though, he spares the pup. This story, of Togo’s life and beginning, is told between jaw-dropping moments of danger of the two making their leg of serum run. The film starts by showing us what kind of sled dog Togo is, his power and his determination. We get to see why he and his musher were chosen and as the film progresses, we see where he came from.
As Sepalla explains, the pup is “undersized, unintelligent, and untrainable.” Togo is unable to be contained. Put him in a kennel? He digs out. Put rocks along the fence line? He digs until he finds his opening. Put him in a house? He’ll find a path out even if he has to climb and break through a window. As the film continues, you see that this determination makes him a wonderful and loyal companion. One of the lines from Togo’s trailer is also the heart of the film, “I always thought he lived for the sled, when all along, what he lived for, was me.”
The bond that Dafoe has with the pup is unmatched. As he yells “good puppies!” from the sled to the hardworking dogs, your heart melts and every moment that their life is put in danger, your heart crumbles. You fear for them, and when the film cuts to their experiences growing together before them you see why. Their bond carries the film, and in the end is what the film is all about, not the quest for the serum. As important as that is, showing the heroic bond between Togo and Seppala that is central to their ability to overcome their obstacles is what keeps the viewer engaged throughout the whole film.
Additionally, Togo is a film that could have been in theaters. The vast white landscapes of the Alaskan wilderness provide an epic backdrop for the story, the mountains, the trees, all of it deserves to be seen on the largest screen possible. Additionally, the effects work, specifically when Seppala and his dogs cross a rapidly breaking frozen lake, is so well executed that it kept me catching my breath with each jump across splitting ice.
In Togo, Disney flexes its production muscles. While I’m used to more large-budget productions from streaming services like Netflix, Togo left me floored. The look of the film is also well done, bringing you into the period piece in a different way by blurring the edges of the frame, making it all feel old even while the story is timeless.
As Seppala, Dafoe is, well, Dafoe. He has a powerful presence but ultimately the kindest of hearts, moving from a man who views the pups as no more than working dogs to become so connected to Togo that he would do anything for him. The monologue that Dafoe delivers while crossing the ice of the sound for the first time is accented by cracks and pulsing sounds of the water below, adding drama to his words while the dogs rush across
One of the other beautiful things about Togo is the moments when Seppala finds rest at different roadhouses, stations set up along the trail to provide help for the mushers. Talking with those who run the roadhouses, we meet two Native Alaskans, hear their language, and while they don’t have especially prominent roles, the scenes with Nive Nielsen as Atiqtalik and Michael Greyeyes as Amituk are the most emotional scenes between humans in the film. All of this being said, the film is simple but it does what it needs to do. That being said, given the area of Alaska, it would have been nice to see more Native actors throughout the film and in the town, not just the roadhouses.
Overall, Togo is an extremely emotional film that shows Disney’s ability to provide high-quality original films on the platform. Dafoe’s role as Sepalla reaches into your heart and makes you hold your own pup tight. The ending brought tears to my eyes and even though the film is simplistic, it hits all of the notes it sets out to. It pulls on your heartstrings, it provides exhilarating moments of intense action, and it delivers a bond between Dafoe and his animal
Togo is now streaming exclusively on Disney+.
- Rating - 8/108/10
Togo is an extremely emotional film that shows Disney’s ability to provide high-quality original films on the platform. Dafoe’s role as Sepalla reaches into your heart and makes you hold your own pup tight.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.