Film Review: ‘Togo’ Works as an Engaging, Winter Adventure


Who doesn’t want to watch a cute pack of dogs play around in the snow this holiday season? “Togo,” the new adventure movie on Disney+, delivers on the dog cuteness. Additionally, it also provides a genuinely thrilling adventure across the Alaskan tundra. The true story, headlined by Willem Dafoe, overstays its welcome just a bit. However, families looking for entertainment on a cold night will enjoy brewing some hot cocoa and turning to Disney+ for this engaging, and at times beautiful, arctic thriller.

Fans of “Balto” will know the set-up of “Togo” very well. The 1925 “Great Race to Mercy” involved sled dogs journeying out into a snowstorm to retrieve diphtheria antitoxin serum to the town of Nome, Alaska, where a deadly outbreak had occurred among the children. Leonhard Seppala (Dafoe), a Norweigan sled dog breeder, steps up for the task to save the children of Nome. His trusty head dog, Togo, has been getting old in age. Yet, Seppala believes he can take them on this 700 mile journey to transport the serum.

“Togo” features some genuinely exciting and tense sequences. Director and Cinematographer Ericson Core certainly knows how to stage a journey through the snow. A race across a frozen river that’s rapidly breaking stands out as a highlight. The sound design treats each crack as a bolt of lightning, jolting us with fear. The camera finds the beauty and horror in this vast, crumbling lake. Another sequence involves Seppala and the dogs nearly falling off a cliff during a storm. Core’s cinematography work, coupled with the editing by Martin Pensa, work in tandem to help give these scenes pulse-pounding tension. These are just a few of the moments throughout the journey that features beauty and thrills all within the same beat.

Yes, the journey is as thrilling as it sounds. Unfortunately, the movie’s plotting comes off less so. The film’s structure cuts back frequently between the present journey and Togo’s past. Just as the movie thrills us with a spectacular, death-defying stunt, it punts us back 10 years to a rascal puppy Togo thawing the heart of Dafoe’s grizzled Seppala. We go back to the past too long and too often. Though it affords us some gorgeous shots of Alaska, it grinds the movie to a halt.

Writer Tom Flynn recently earned the first awards nomination for Disney+, contending for the WGA Award for Original Long-Form Television Program. Flynn’s structure may be one of the weaker parts of the film. Yet, he knows how to create stakes and convey the enormity of the set-up of the film. There’s a tense 90-minute movie within this 2-hour feature that wants to be both an exciting adventure movie and a cute “Dog’s Journey” movie. For what it’s worth, Togo looks just as cute and adorable when he’s saving Willem Dafoe in a freezing cold blizzard.

If there’s one thing the flashbacks bring us, it’s Julianne Nicholson as Constance Seppala, another member of the “token wife part” club. She lights up the screen whenever she comes on, even if the movie never gives her enough to do. In the past, she’s the one cajoling Leonhard to keep Togo, even when he misbehaves. In the present, she acts as a veterinarian and confidant. However, Constance never gets any sort of inner life. She exists merely to support either Leonhard or the dog.

In the end, Balto ran the last leg of the “Great Race of Mercy,” getting statues and universal acclaim from that. Flynn makes the bold choice to explore what life is like after one makes a grand, dangerous trek for the film’s third act. The adventure shifts gears into the tearjerker territory. This is where Dafoe’s performance really resonates. The bond he has with Togo gets tested in the aftermath of this stunning accomplishment.

One could easily see Disney having released this theatrically as a mid-budget winter family adventure. It definitely possesses the necessary sheen and polish to be a theatrical feature. The $40 million dollar budgeted film is exactly what we’ve lost in favor of more IP driven features. The vast expanses of the Alaskan tundra look great on TV, but they would look even better on the big screen. As the film opens on Disney+ just in time for Christmas, hopefully, families get to discover this flawed, but a very entertaining adventure.

“Togo” premieres on Disney+ on December 20th, 2019.

GRADE: (★)

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