Review: Togo (2020) – One Man and his Slog

Willem Dafoe in Togo

In February, Disney after the aquesition of 20th Century Fox released The Call of the Wild, a film about gold prospectors in the Yukon and the one dog who adventures all across the Canadian mountains. A few months earlier, the Mickey Mouse Company ventured into the streaming business with the North American launch of Disney+ with one of the services lead launch titles being Togo, another adventure about a canine hero, this time a real one. With Disney+ finally arriving on English soil, so do does Togo, a film that, despite its true story, constantly plays second fiddle to another North American adventure film.

Arriving a month too late, Togo tells the story of husky musher Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe) and his lead dog Togo. When his local village, Nome, comes down with a diptheria outbreak, Leonhard is tasked with making a 600 mile trip to collect antitoxin to save the village from ruin. Despite Togo’s advancing age and the incoming storm, he sets out knowing full well that both of them might not make it back.

This perilous journey equates to roughly half of Togo’s runtime with the addition of sporadic flashbacks fleshing the rest of the film out. In fact, the many dangers on Leonhard’s run feel glossed over by this split timeline with Togo playing to Disney convention with flowery meadows and plenty of frivolity in comparison to a winter looking to harm anyone not taking it seriously. While Togo is an easy going watch, it underplays its dangers for a PG rating. While the possibility of Togo not making the trek is toyed with, it is never to be taken seriously. Director Erikson Core uses the emotionally manipulative sight of a hospital full of sick children to underscore the urgency here, and it is just as tactless as it sounds.

While an utterly conventional family film, Togo is shot as if being recounted in a long series of oil paintings, with time and effort going into each frame looking dated, not to imply to its detriment however. Much in the same way that Mid90s used grainy VHS quality images to convey nostalgia and age, Togo here plays to its 1920s timeframe with a careful but often imperceptible nod to an age long gone. While an interesting choice, Core picks and chooses when to use it, making something subtle somewhat less so. Unlike Call of the Wild though, Core and the team behind Togo try to avoid CGI, at least when it comes to Togo himself. Here the dangers he faces feel more exhilerating, even if they are less spectacular because the dog in question is actually there, even if the hazards around him are computer generated.

It is a film comprised of impressive visuals, from the dread inducing cracking of slowly thawing ice to the mountain ranges and wide plains of Alaska. Togo is as much about Leonhard as it is the dog, and the place he chooses to call home says everything about this simple man you really need to know before the flashbacks make it painfully obvious. Dafoe is a stoic presence until he explodes in thunderous anger or unexpected joy, a manic performance in fitting with a man who doesn’t know his own limitations. Suprising however is the consistently excellent Julianne Nicholson as Leonhard’s wife Constance, a paper-thin character who seems to be the scriptwriters punchline, a nothing role for a complacent performer. Nicholson makes it not only more than that but completely necessary in making mechanical storytelling feel natural. All her knowing nods and unexplained mockery give Leonhard a personality outside of the one expected of him.

The age old adage that it takes a village feels true here as Togo proves to be the sum of its parts. Despite a flat script and some perverse emotional beats, Core’s film is visually impressive, stocked with great performances and even a little bit heartbreaking when it isn’t trying to be. While it can be forgiven an ending ripped right from the script of Rudy (we all know the scene), this is a true story that feels faithful in its aesthetic but utterly predictable in its storytelling, despite the occasional thrills.

TSR

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