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“Togo” gives a good dog the film he deserves

togolead
Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
2.5stars
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Julianne Nicholson, Zahn McClarnon
Directed by: Erickson Core
Release Date: Dec. 20, 2019

Poor Togo was cheated.

The sled dog, who ran 264 miles in the longest leg of the 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska, was overshadowed by a litter mate, Balto, who ran 55 miles.

Balto, the dog that finally delivered the diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, got all the glory. There is no statue in Central Park for Togo, no newspaper stories, no mildly amusing animated movies where he cavorts with talking polar bears voiced by Phil Collins.

“It was almost more than I could bear when the newspaper dog Balto received a statue for his ‘glorious achievements’,” Togo’s owner Leonhard Sepphala said in Gay Salisbury’s bestselling book on the serum run, “The Cruelest Miles.”

Some 95 years after the run, Disney+ is setting the record straight with their new original film “Togo” (rated PG for some peril, thematic elements and mild language), which serves as a loving memorial to a dog and a man who made incredible sacrifices to save the lives of others.

The real Leonhard Sepphala (played by the great Willem Dafoe) had a daughter, Sigrid, who was at risk of catching the diphtheria epidemic herself, which gave him some real emotional stakes in his run. The script of “Togo”, written by Tom Flynn, does away with Sigrid entirely. In the film, Sepphala has no motivation for risking life and limb other than that it is the right thing to do.

“All those children, we know them,” Sepphala tells his wife Constance (Julianne Nicholson). “That little girl that lives next to Mallon and always runs out to pet the dogs… We know those children. We know their parents.”

togo3
Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

So begins a grueling cross-country trek as Sepphala and his team are beset by a severe blizzard, a dangerous crossing of a frozen sound and a nearly calamitous descent off the face of a cliff.

These set pieces are brilliantly filmed by director Ericson Core, a long-time cinematographer who puts his skills to good use. He captures the raw dangerous beauty of Alaska (or more accurately, Alberta, Canada, which is where this was filmed) in multiple scenes. Even if you’ve been around long enough to know where this story is going, the visuals will keep you hooked.

The performances by Defoe and Nicholson also help transcend the occasionally predictable plot. Nearly 40 years into his film career, it is nice to see that Defoe is still getting lead roles in projects as varied as “Togo”, “The Lighthouse” and “At Eternity’s Gate.” In a film with few supporting characters and many stretches where Defoe is alone with his dogs, he is required to do the heavy lifting, and he pulls it off easily.

togo2
Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Nicholson’s Constance, like all of the supporting characters, is written a little thinly. She essentially has two character traits in that she loves Sepphala, and she loves dogs. But Nicholson and Defoe have chemistry in spades, and Flynn’s script is kind enough to bless them with some charming one-liners.

“You’re too softhearted,” Sepphala tells Constance.

“You’re too Norwegian,” she fires back.

Flynn is a relatively inexperienced screenwriter (For my money, his best is still the underrated Chris Evans indie “Gifted”) who sticks close to the historical record, and most of the best scenes in “Togo” (the crossing of Norton Sound, Togo’s frequent escape attempts) come straight from the history books. While I appreciated Flynn’s historical accuracy, I do wish he had taken more time to develop his supporting characters- many of which pop in for a scene or two before disappearing entirely.

The film also drags in places – It clocks in at nearly two hours, which is much too long for a movie where nearly every viewer knows the outcome before they press play. At times, I was wishing that “Togo” would run just a little faster.

togo4
Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Still, this is a compelling story and, in my mind, “Togo” is the strongest of the many cinematic tellings this tale has received.

At the very end of the film, Sepphala tells us that he continued working with dogs even after Togo passed. “If you’re around them long enough, they tend to get under your skin,” Sepphala says. “And if you’re lucky enough to have known a great one, they never really leave. They stay with you as long as you live.”

Films, like dogs, can be unruly. You can wish they had stronger writing or tighter editing. But even an imperfect film, like an imperfect dog, can get under your skin. And, for a few hours at least, “Togo” got under mine.

About the author

Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves.  He can be reached at staticandscreen@gmail.com.

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