The Walt Disney Company sure does love dogs. Some of its flagship animation studio’s most popular films are all about dogs, from Lady and the Tramp to 101 Dalmatians. And last month, when Disney+ went live, it did so with a live-action remake of the former title. (There’s a Cruella De Vil-focused live-action remake arriving soon in theaters.) Later this month, Disney+ will premiere a new reality show called Pick of the Litter, all about real-life doggos. Disney! They love dogs. Not that you need further proof, but you can also consider this month’s Disney+ Original film, Togo, a perfectly decent if unremarkable real-life drama all about man and his best friend.
Togo isn’t the first live-action dog-heavy film from Disney, of course; one of the titles the algorithm may recommend to you after you watch the new movie is Eight Below, starring the late Paul Walker and a lot of Siberian huskies. Togo is a less lighthearted film, inspired by true events in Alaska, circa 1925. Willem Dafoe plays Leonhard Seppala, who’s spent years in Alaska training and leading sled dogs for various expeditions. But his hardest is around the corner, after a diphtheria outbreak threatens the citizens of Nome. Leonhard is tasked with fetching a necessary serum to withstand the outbreak, with just his sled dogs, led by the ultra-heroic Togo, at his side while a massive storm is about to hit the state.
Togo, though, isn’t entirely as straightforward as all that. Just as Leonhard and the dogs race into their first blast of the storm, we flash back 12 years to when Togo was first brought to Leonhard. It’s here that we get a sense of the chopped-up character arc for the musher; upon his first dealings with Togo, Leonhard tells his loving wife (Julianne Nicholson) that dogs “aren’t our friends or our children”. But as that dialogue hints, by the film’s conclusion, Leonhard will very much treat Togo like a close friend and surrogate child. That connection only strengthens as Leonhard and the dogs struggle to get to the serum and back home again in time.
That said, there’s only so much tension that director Ericson Core and screenwriter Tom Flynn are able to build. It’s not just that you can find out, say, how long Leonhard and Togo lived based on a cursory Google search. (You can do that, of course.) No, the problem is that Togo is still a Disney movie and it would be very un-Disney-like to make an original film about heroic dogs where the dogs either die or fail to be heroic. What this movie lacks in tension, it makes up for in having Willem Dafoe. Dafoe’s career is among the most diverse and unexpected among actors of his generation. Yes, he’s an intense and sometimes terrifying performer, but he’s also been tender in films such as The Florida Project and gruff-but-lovable in Pixar’s Finding Nemo.
Here, Dafoe’s playing a fairly uncomplicated hero, the kind of stern and stolid protagonist who typifies a specific type of Disney movie that the studio hasn’t made for a while. Leonhard, as written, doesn’t pop off the page too strongly. But Willem Dafoe being Willem Dafoe means that he brings an energy to the performance most other actors couldn’t provide. At the very least, Togo offers the distinct pleasure of watching Dafoe, on a dog sled, doing a riff on the St. Crispian’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V as a way to buck up his pups.
Dafoe’s presence is both the best part of Togo and the strangest, in a way. Unlike last month’s Noelle, for example, Togo was always only going to be released via Disney+. (Noelle was originally supposed to be released theatrically.) And the movie surrounding Dafoe does feel pretty squarely like a streaming film, as opposed to the kind of thing you need to see on the big screen. Even with the widescreen vistas of the Alaskan wilderness, Togo has a small-screen feel in its city sets, in most of the rest of its performers, and in its blunt and direct storytelling. If another actor played Leonhard, this would have almost felt at home as a TV-movie on The Wonderful World of Disney. Willem Dafoe elevates the material, to be sure, to a point where you have to wonder why this project intrigued him enough to sign on.
Togo, to note, isn’t a bad film. Of the three Disney+ Original movies so far, it’s easily the best. Like Lady and the Tramp and Noelle, it fits as a recognizable type of film that the Walt Disney Company used to make before it became driven by franchises. Depending on your mileage, what this movie offers may be all you need for a nice and cozy holiday evening. (Togo arrives on Disney+ on December 20.) Willem Dafoe isn’t delivering one of his all-time performances, but he’s also not phoning it in. And these are, truly, good dogs. Togo is content in showing you those good dogs, and not much else. It’s a decent enough way to spend two hours, but only just.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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