Nome, Alaska, in January 1925 was still very much a frontier. A few months after the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and while Walt Disney was experimenting with early animation, a Diptheria epidemic threatened the old gold mining town. Antitoxin serum was available, but getting it required a 630-mile round trip, and if exposed to the elements for too long, it would become ineffective. There were only three airplanes in Alaska, all open cockpit biplanes with water-cooled engines and entirely unsuitable for the arctic weather. Teams of sled dogs were still in common use, but it would take the right man and the right dog.
Willem Dafoe plays real-life musher Leonhard Seppala, who had previously made the trip in record time with his lead dog Togo. The local leaders ask Seppala to take his team into an impending storm in an attempt to bring back the serum. At 12 years old, however, Togo is feared to be too old to survive the journey. Seppala’s wife, Constance (Julianne Nicholson), encourages him to leave Togo behind, warning him that he loves the dog more than he realizes.
Through flashbacks, we see how the bond was formed between the runty and mischievous Togo and his stern owner. Not believing him to be sled-dog quality, or even trainable, Seppala tried twice to rid himself of the pup. And twice Togo found his way home. Finally recognizing Togo’s strengths, he came to admire the dog he once told Constance would never be anything more than a pest.
As Seppala and his team fight their way through the storm, they make several stops for food and rest. Each time the people they meet express their doubts that Togo will survive. While Seppala doesn’t know if Togo will make it, he is certain that without Togo he won’t make it at all. And indeed, Togo saves his life more than once as they encounter dangers along the trail. The dog is injured and exhausted, but determined. At one point Seppala tries to get Togo to ride in the sled, but the old lead dog insists on taking his place at the head of the team. When the storm becomes blinding, Seppala has to put his faith in Togo’s ability to find his way home.
For a mid-budget, direct-to-streaming movie, Togo looks fantastic. The story is told with a sure hand in a style rarely seen from Disney since the 1990s. Fans of historical adventure stories and animal lovers alike will appreciate the work put into Togo, though the latter will want to keep a box of tissues nearby. And Dafoe, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the historical Seppala, gives another excellent performance, whether sharing the screen with humans or animals.
Because of a newspaperman’s mix up, a different dog, Balto, received all the credit. You may have seen his movie. Always the underdog, it’s nice that these many years later, Togo finally gets his due. (Walt Disney Studios)