And so begins the era of Disney+. The latest streaming mammoth arrived on Tuesday in Ireland, and with it the chance to figuratively drown in a wave of classic/new animation, a galaxy far, far away, superhero battles, 90’s throwbacks and even some nature documentaries if you are so inclined. It really is rather crazy how much stuff is on the platform that you might not be expecting (the one that got me: Doug. Remember Doug? This show was all over my childhood and I didn’t even remember). And, of course there is also plenty of original content, with the promise of more to come. That means that, while it was first released stateside last year, Togo is getting its first airing on this side of the Atlantic this week (legally).
In a way it’s Disney taking a fairly big risk on what would be one of its opening gambits to streaming audiences (the other major original film, a live-action remake of Lady And The Tramp, was certainly safer): based on events that would have little resonance nowadays, especially outside of the non-continental United States, with a director lacking much in the way of a pedigree. And while Willem DaFoe is always going to bring something to a production – even in drek like the last film I saw him in – there was little worth writing home about in the supporting cast. On the other hand, who doesn’t like dogs? Heroic dogs to boot. So, was Togo a bit too adventurous an idea to be a bold opening statement from Disney+? Or do good boys overcome all?
In a remote part of 1925 Alaska, Norwegian emigre Leonhard Seppala (daFoe) is called upon to be part of a desperate mission: to use his skills as a musher to aid in the effort to get life-saving medicine for the children of the local town, facing death from a diphtheria outbreak. To do so, he will need to rely more than ever on Togo, the aging leader of his sled team, much to the worry of his wife Constance (Julianne Nicholson). As he and his faithful husky engage on their perilous journey across snow and ice, Leonhard remembers the rebellious pup he once knew, who may not have the strength left in him to get the job done now.
I suppose I have to keep in mind that I had lowered expectations, but I found Togo to be a fairly remarkable introduction to the world of Disney+. From earth that could easily be considered the opposite of fallow, director Ericson Core has fashioned a story that is an exciting reconstruction of a fairly thrilling, if little-known, humanitarian event. And, to boot, it also serves as a decent exploration of man’s affinity for dogs, a not unworthy thing to place at the heart of such a film.
Perhaps because of his past career as a cinematographer known for action movies – you might credit him with the initial success of one of the world’s biggest franchises currently, having been the DP on 2001’s The Fast And The Furious – Core doesn’t wait around. It takes all of five minutes for the premise of Togo to be outlined to the viewer: a town in peril, with help a very long way, away. More modern means of transportation are unavailable, leaving the job in the hands of the mushers, whose way of life is already in the early stages of being made obsolete. Tell that to Leonhard and his compatriots though, who are called upon to embark on a truly desperate trip through storms, over frozen bay’s and around mountains. It’s almost refreshing to be thrown into the experience so quickly, with Core and his team seemingly in a hurry to get to the meat-and-bones of what he wants to show us.
But even as you’re watching Leonhard deal with the first of many pitfalls in his mission, Core does make what could be a terrible mis-step, in stopping his central narrative dead to embark on a flashbacks to Togo’s earlier days and Leonhard’s stuttering efforts to deal with him, at the insistence of wife Constance. These sections could be pure sentimentality – man dislikes dog, dog proves himself, man likes dog – but are the real beating heart of Togo, where we get to see a man fall in love with a dog as easily as his wife does, not just because it is useful as a working animal, but because it exhibits character, be it heart, determination or courage. The film gets the nature of the relationship between man and dog very well, and that’s vitally important, because the whole emotional core of the film is not the dying children back in the town, it’s Leonhard’s distress at the idea that he may be working his favourite companion to death in order to save those dying children.
Leave it to someone like DaFoe to make that seeming imbalance of priorities work (one can’t help but remember the vastly over-rated War Horse, where the suffering of thousands in World War One was a dissonant backdrop to equine injury). DaFoe has to straddle the line of being a hard-ass musher, a loving husband and a dog’s best friend, but there are few actors alive today who can showcase both astonishing hardness in performance (and look: who else could bring the grit of frontier life by just showing you his face), and an affecting emotionality. DaFoe sells the relationship with Togo at every step, and really makes you buy the intense connection that the two share. Children? What children? Aside from a handful of returns to Nome and its fretting mayor (a decent Christopher Heyerdahl, a character actor of such wide travels that he deserves a starring role at some point), that’s an almost moot avenue, as moot as the potential for a pro-immigration message – Leonhard was Norwegian, his wife Belgian, and non-Americans seem to outnumber Americans in the film) that Core largely discards as backdrop.
The flashback sequences that litter the film could really ruin the momentum of Togo, but instead become very interesting insights into man and dog, with a fair dose of physical and verbal comedy mixed in (a frustrated Leonhard declares that “Saint Francis of Assisi would shoot this dog”). I can’t overstate enough how important it is that this groundwork is done, to make both the titular dog a significant character – a difficult-to-control rebel converted into an heroic leader – and Leonhard someone who is more than just an employer of huskies.
Of course it is easy to show a dog in peril and tug at the heartstrings of any audience, but Togo works hard at making itself much more than that, showing us a being that we see as a rambunctious child desperate to prove himself before it is an adult with one last great effort in him (not unlike his master, who waxes lyrical about how he was slapped by his father as a younger man, declaring his intention to immigrate in search of gold). In other words, Togo is established as a great character in his own right. Nicholson also does good work here, making sure that Constance is more than just a fretting housewife, buy also the person who gives Togo his start-up in life..
And it also works quite well as a sort of action-movie. There are a number of impressive set-pieces, wherein Leonhard and Togo (and the other dogs) tackle cliff-edges, trips over breaking ice (including an unlikely recitation of the Crispin’s Day speech, bellowed into the storm as a defiant gesture) and the gruelling reality of a miles and miles of snowy landscape to be traversed, with all of the costs in blood, sweat and spirit. The apparent controversy over who deserved the most credit for the Nome Serum Run – something that was a bitter source of dispute at the time and after, but has largely been resolved now, or so it seems – is only touched upon a little, but does add a certain something to the last act, an exploration of the worthiness of seeking credit, in the face of achieving such an important good. Not that the dog actors, all excellently handled as far as I can see, would really care all that much. Despite an imposing running time for a Disney film, Core’s willingness to defy the expected formula in terms of pacing and structure – the flashbacks help here, with Togo not strictly adhering to a classic three-act form – makes his creation something that trips along instead of grinding.
Core, also acting as cinematographer, directs a good looking production, albeit one that might have benefited from being seen on a larger screen: at times the effects look a little ropey on a TV, most noticeably backgrounds that are just a little too ill-fitting for the actors, where they look as if they are front of a green screen of some kind, a manner of shooting that the director has explicitly denied using. Sequences involving the crossing of Norton Sound get away with it, as your attention will be much more focused on the cracks appearing in ice, to a distinctive twang that sounds like cable being torn apart. When actual physical surrounds are used, they do look spectacular, the wilds of Alberta, Canada subbing in nicely for the wilds of Alaska, USA. A certain kind of softness to the edge of the frame, a deliberate and inspired choice by the director, helps to ground the audience in the idea that we are back in a period where photography and film-making was still in a nascent stage.
Between the “present” and the flashbacks, there is an excellent contrast to be found between summers that are too short and winters that are too long, exemplifying both the warm attraction of the “American” frontier at its best, and the grim difficulty of its wildness at its worst. Togo is a story where the environment is essentially the antagonist, in its snow, storms and ice: Core manages to make that feeling work, without it becoming overwrought, with a gritty colour palette that makes Togo look like anything but a modern Disney film, and more like an old-school quasi-documentary.
The most I had hoped for was for Togo to be a solid effort, but it turned out to be much more than that. It’s a strong, strong movie, bolstered by the performance from DaFoe (and Diesel as Togo) whose gravitas adds hugely to proceedings. But more than that it is a film that exhibits some rare qualities nowadays: an understanding of what it is demonstrated right from the off, that is followed through on for the rest of the running time. An exciting race against time in unique circumstances matched with a dog/master relationship, Togo hits all of the right notes and beats expectations across the board. I realise now, after watching, that this is Disney+’s pitch to an older breed of viewer, showing its willingness to, perhaps, put stuff up on online that they would never risk putting up on the big screen. More power to them: with films and ambition like this, this Disney+ thing might just have a future. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Disney+).