Togo, Disney+ review: the heart-swelling tale of the most heroic dog who ever lived

Julianne Nicholson and Willem Dafoe prepare to brave the wilderness - Disney
Julianne Nicholson and Willem Dafoe prepare to brave the wilderness - Disney

Dir: Ericson Core. Cast: Willem Dafoe, Julianne Nicholson, Christopher Heyerdahl, Michael McElhatton, Michael Gaston. U cert, 113 min

Cometh the hour, cometh the Siberian husky. Togo – one of the Disney productions to land straight away on their new streaming service, Disney+ – is a biopic of a pooch, but no ordinary pooch, and a better-than-ordinary film, too. Time magazine voted for this noble sled-dog in 2011 as the most heroic animal in history.

With his owner, Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe), Togo led an emergency mission in 1925 across 264 miles of frozen waste, to save the children of Nome, Alaska from a diphtheria epidemic. If this tale sounds vaguely familiar, you may have heard of Balto, the more famous dog involved on the final furlong of the same serum run, who scooped up all the credit by crossing the finish line, and was made a front-page celebrity around the world.

Well, the way this film tells it, Balto (who ran a mere 55 miles with his own team) wasn’t fit to lick the underside of Togo’s mucky paws. The film toggles back and forth between the mission itself – a breathtakingly hazardous enterprise – and Togo’s early years as a pesky pup who keeps digging his way out of confinement.

In real life, Leonhard and his wife Constance (a fine Julianne Nicholson) had an eight-year-old daughter, who was theoretically at risk from the outbreak. The film leaves her out, the better to concentrate on Togo’s transformation from insubordinate hellfiend into prized pack leader and darling of the Seppala ranch, allowed inside (unlike all the other dogs) but taught to stop short of ransacking the bedroom.

Perhaps this film – solidly scripted and very well-made – is an especially refreshing discovery if you’ve seen The Call of the Wild, the recent Jack London adaptation with Harrison Ford, which cost three times as much, thanks to its disastrous computer-animated dogs, and looked horrendous anyway.

One of the strengths here, by contrast, is the consistently majestic scenery – it was mainly shot on location in Alberta – and there are mountain vistas at sunset, and some beautiful dissolves from Togo’s muzzle into the vaporous skies, all of which speak gratifyingly to the original calling of cinematographer-turned-director Ericson Core.

It’s a darn sight better than his Point Break remake, that’s for sure. Even fans of Dafoe’s ever-more-Hemingway-esque career trajectory will find a lot to relish. It’s the second film I’ve seen in as many months where he’s mainly being sped across tundra by a pack of huskies (the other being Abel Ferrara’s Siberia, very much not on Disney+), and while Robert Pattinson stopped short of licking snow off Dafoe’s moustache in The Lighthouse, as Togo becomes fond of doing, they came pretty close.

Dafoe even looks quite a lot like the real Seppala, a crinkled Norwegian outdoorsman whose papery visage tells his life story. Twice Seppala shaved a day off the trek by risking a shortcut across the frozen Norton Sound – treacherous enough on the outbound slog, with great cracks breaking across it, but a nightmare on the journey back.

Film newsletter REFERRAL (article)
Film newsletter REFERRAL (article)

The film could have come apart in these sequences – largely CG-dependent as they obviously are, with islands of ice cracking off – but it holds onto its present-tense jeopardy well, given that it’s fundamentally a mid-list Disney biopic of a under-celebrated dog. Sure, it gets a bit sententious about Togo being the greatest of them all, there’s an accidentally hilarious moment where his ghost pops up on an outcrop, and complete critical honesty would force me to confess I’m probably a sucker for this film’s brand of non-cutesy earnestness.

But the shot of Togo hobbling on a bandaged leg towards the camera in dimming natural light, with a famous Max Richter track (On the Nature of Daylight) see-sawing mournfully under it, is worth a thousand Call of the Wilds. And when Dafoe boosts doggy morale on the ice by reciting, of all things, Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech (“we few, we happy few…”) with every husky name inserted instead of Bedford and Exeter and whatnot?

Reader, my heart swelled laughingly, and so will yours.

View the latest Disney+ deals​