Review: Togo (2019)

“I always thought he lived for the sled. What he lived for, was me.”

*This review may contain spoilers*

Togo is a survival, drama based on a true story directed by Ericson Core (Invincible, Point Break 2015) and exclusive to Disney+. The film stars Willem Dafoe (Spiderman, The Lighthouse) as Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian musher who must haul his dog-sled team 700 miles through a dangerous storm to save his Alaskan town Nome from an epidemic.

When the content list of Disney+ was announced, there were two things that intrigued me most: The Mandalorian (which is great!) and Togo, a film that boasted a solid trailer and was receiving great overall reviews, albeit flying under the radar of most. After an endless string of mediocre to awful Netflix original movies and a history of underwhelming Disney live-action animal flicks, Togo initially only drew my interest with its lead actor. I have been following Dafoe’s filmography since the first Raimi Spiderman movie back in 2002, but more recently he has become a real ticket-seller for me, particularly after his flawless portrayal of Thomas Wake in The Lighthouse (an unforgivable Oscar snub!). Once again, Dafoe doesn’t put a foot wrong. If I had to put a selling point on this movie, it would be the undeniable chemistry between both the human and canine actors alike. You don’t always need to like your lead to be able to empathise with them and Defoe does a great job at demonstrating this headstrong man torn between Togo being a working dog or a pet. Given that most of the other actors are Siberian huskies, both Defoe and the dogs make entrancing work of bringing this relationship to life. So much of the films script could have been a one-way conversation between Sepp and Togo, but small nods, noises and well-trained movements are caught on camera to build the animals as characters no lesser than their human counterparts. W.C Fields famously said, “never work with children or animals”, which is why many recent movie animals are lazily reliant on CGI (this year’s The Call of the Wild had an entirely animated St. Bernard!). When it comes to the dogs, Togo uses practical effects wherever possible, which had me trying to pinpoint a single moment in which poor CGI took me away from the film. I am happy to say that I didn’t find a single shot, which had me massively respecting this movie for its dedication to create a realistic experience to match its unbelievable true story. In line with the character, Dafoe is subtle in his love for Togo, which brought some tear jerking and emotionally compelling scenes which are acted at just the right tone for characters consistency.  

Besides the core incredible true story that would be hard to over-glorify, none of the sub-plots are groundbreakingly original. We see a lot of the cliche’s expected from a Disney animal drama, such as the classic underdog story of Togo going from runt to sled champion and the relationship between Sepp and Togo grow from one of annoyance to love, but the film is neither bogged down by these nor feels repetitive. Firstly, because it is so damn endearing, but mostly due to the editing that cuts between the serum run and the flashbacks to Togo’s mischievous beginnings. The film doesn’t follow a chronological order like the trailer suggests, which I can already hear some critics saying, “it takes you out of the action!”. Argue in the comments, but I strongly disagree. The film is intended to be an enjoyable family drama, with the serum run scenes weighing heavy on some dark themes and Togo’s shortfalls due to his age. These life endangering moments are gripping and tense, with mounting stakes that hold you invested in what happens next. In comparison, the light-hearted scenes away from the serum run are charming, bright and funny, which gives you welcome breaks to relax and avoids the film being action heavy in the third act. Perhaps Togo cuts to these origin scenes too abruptly for some, but I found myself enjoying these scenes just as much (if not more!) than the more critical core plot. Togo’s troublesome adventures and reluctance to give up is adorable and something everyone can enjoy, but is also necessary to create the relationship that this film is built on.

There is one scene that almost fell short, in which the plan changes unknowingly to our lead and another musher is sent to cross Sepp and relay the serum. The tension is created in a scene explaining the situation but is almost immediately followed by the conclusion to the problem, with little tension building in between. Just before the anxiety felt real, the editing cheats us out of what could have been a suspenseful secondary story which would have been more taxing if it had run alongside the main story for a while longer. A second sub-plot appears somewhat confused towards the end, in which two characters claim that Togo is dying. This feels like an over dramatized way of building a tear-jerking scene towards the end, especially when you are told the real life story of Togo’s final years, but I admittedly did tear up for the entirety of the final 10 minutes, demonstrating the competent relationship building established throughout the film. What redeems any potential shortcomings is the overall beauty of this movie. Much of this film was shot on location with plenty of practical effects, with acceptable CGI creating the hostile weather that this real team faced. Bolstered with an elegant soundtrack by Mark Isham (Warrior, Crash), Togo feels like a passion project for Director Core that comes across as gorgeous as it is heart-warming.

Unfortunately, Togo doesn’t seem to be attracting the attention it deserves. It is unlikely to break any records or go down in cinema history, but Togo is a fantastic family film that anyone can find comfort in. It doesn’t cover much new ground, but it hits all the right notes and feels miles above most of Disney’s less mainstream live action films. The film sounds great, looks even better and has a charming and memorable relationship between its leads. I was rooting for this film since its announcement and it delivers, which has me currently recommending it to every person that will listen. I give Togo a 7/10!

If you liked this review, please comment or share this post for others. If you have any similar or, even better, conflicting opinions of Togo, please comment to open a healthy debate.

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