Togo (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Good dog, Togo!

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“Togo”, which was released on Disney+ in last month, is an engaging drama film inspired by a real-life story associated the 1925 serum run to Nome, which is also known as the Great Race of Mercy. Although its narrative route is predictable to the core, the movie is equipped well with sincere storytelling and some admirable technical qualities, and you will surely find yourself rooting for its two different main characters at the center of the story.

At the beginning, we get to know that grim medical situation in Nome, Alaska during the cold winter of 1925. Due to an unexpected epidemic of diphtheria in this small town located in the middle of the wilderness of Alaska, many children become seriously ill, and they must be treated with diphtheria antitoxic serum as soon as possible before it is too late, but, unfortunately, the serum is currently unavailable in the town. At first, the mayor of the town and others consider getting the serum delivered by an airplane, but that option is virtually impossible because of the worsening weather, and it looks like the only option for them at present is delivering the serum via dog sled, though that option is not entirely reliable because whoever will be in charge of delivering the serum to the town must go through harsh conditions over 700 miles (around 1,130 km) along with sled dogs.

When he is asked to do that daunting job, Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe, who adequately looks as serious as his recent Oscar-nominated turns in “The Florida Project” (2017) and “At Eternity’s Gate” (2018)), a veteran Norwegian musher who came to settle in Nome along with his dear wife Constance (Julianne Nicholson, who brings considerable spirit and personality to her seemingly thankless role), is understandably reluctant, but he is well aware of how desperate the situation is for many families in the town who may lost their children to diphtheria if nothing is done at all, and so is his wife. Although she surely does not want to lose her loving husband, she also understands well that he eventually accepts this urgent task, and all she can do for now is hoping that he will survive and accomplish the task along with his trustful sled dogs including a 12-year-old Siberian Husky named Togo, which has been the leader of the pack for many years.

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Once Seppala leaves the town along with his sled dogs, he soon comes across many small and big obstacles on their long, arduous journey across the snowy wilderness of Alaska, and the movie accordingly gives us a series of intense moments including a terrifying scene where Seppala and his sled dogs manage to avoid certain death on a very stiff slide in the last minute. At one point later in the story, Seppala decides to go across a frozen sea area because he needs to save time as much as possible, and the movie will certainly keep you on the edge with all those cracking sounds surrounding Seppala’s tricky sled ride across that frozen sea area.

In the meantime, we also get to know more about the long relationship between Seppala and Togo through a series of flashbacks. During its first days, Togo did not look that healthy and strong enough in Seppala’s viewpoint, but Constance insisted on raising Togo instead of giving it to someone else, and Togo soon came to annoy Seppala a lot as frequently escaping from his dog kennel and interfering with his sled dog training process. No matter how much Seppala tried to prevent Togo from meddling with his dog training process, Togo was not daunted at all as always finding another way to annoy its master, and that certainly amused Constance a lot.

And then Seppala came to realize Togo’s unexpected potential when he finally let Togo join his dog training process. Steadily running faster than any other sled dogs, it quickly proved itself as a dog born to lead the pack, and Seppala was surely proud of Togo more than ever when it contributed a lot to his victory at a local dog sled competition.

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Togo is reliable to Seppala as usual even though it is quite old now, but, as one supporting character points out to Seppala, there is not much time left for Togo, and the mood gradually becomes melancholic as Seppala and his dogs try to finish the second half of their journey, which turns out to be more demanding and daunting than the first one. Again, Togo saves the day more than once, but it clearly becomes quite exhausted as tirelessly pushing itself to its limits as before, and that certainly concerns Seppala a lot.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Seppala and his sled dogs eventually accomplish the task, but the screenplay by Tom Flynn goes a bit deeper than expected. While I was amused a bit by a small moment associated with a certain other real-life sled dog named Balto (Yes, this dog was the main source of inspiration for animation feature film “Balto” (1995)), I was quite touched by the finale which is accompanied with Max Richter’s “This Bitter Earth” on the soundtrack, and it certainly helps that Togo comes to us a character as vivid as any other main characters in the story thanks to the convincing performance from several different dogs chosen to play it in the movie.

Overall, “Togo” is a well-made product which is imbued with enough skill and sincerity under the commendable direction of director Ericson Core, and I often found myself emotionally involved in its story and characters more than I thought during my viewing. This is a familiar stuff indeed, but it did its job well while having its heart at the right place, and I will not deny that I had a fairly good time with it.

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