Entertainment » Television


by Jaye Foucher
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Dec 11, 2019
'Togo'  (Source:Chris Large / Disney Enterprises)

When Disney+ asked EDGE Media Network to review their upcoming release of "Togo," the true story of Leonard Seppala and his infamous lead sled dog, they probably never imagined it would be pre-screened by a small panel of experts on the subject: A Siberian husky breeder/musher and two Iditarod veterans. Our anticipation was high, but our expectations were not; whilst Disney is no stranger to producing movies about dog mushing ("Iron Will," "Snow Dogs," "8 Below"), most family-based movie companies tend to either romanticize the subject or anthropomorphize the dogs.

"Togo," to my pleasant surprise, did neither and is to date the best representation and most accurate depiction of the story of how a relay of dog teams saved the children of Nome, Alaska.

You may be familiar already with the basic story. In the winter of 1924-1925, an outbreak of diphtheria struck the town of Nome, Alaska. By the end of January, there were 20 confirmed cases of the illness and the town's hospital had no antitoxin to treat them with. The highly contagious disease threatened to kill most of the region's population; natives and children were particularly at risk because they lacked resistance to it. Nome in those days was virtually cut off from the rest of the world during winter months, and only accessible by dog team via the 938 mile Iditarod Trail.

As children began to die and the epidemic spread, public health officials proposed that dogsled teams be arranged to transport the desperately needed antitoxin to Nome. One musher would start in Nenana, where the serum could be shipped to by rail, and another musher would begin in Nome. The mushers would meet in the middle to pass off the antitoxin and thus shorten the length of time to get it there.

This is the point in the story where the movie "Togo" opens, and we quickly meet Norwegian champion dog musher Leonhard Seppala (played by William Dafoe) and his lead dog, Togo. Seppala, or "Sepp" as his friends called him, is asked to make the round trip to Nenana with a team of dogs. Seppala's wife Constance (played by Julianne Nicholson) begs him not to take twelve-year-old Togo - whom she nursed to health as a pup and has had a soft spot for ever since -with him. She fears that Togo will not withstand the trip and die, but Seppala insists that he cannot navigate the trip and the serious incoming storm without his best lead dog.

  (Source:Chris Large / Disney Enterprises)

The adventure that ensues as Seppala, Togo, and the rest of the dog team battle ground blizzards, mountainous climbs, open water on Norton Sound, and brutally cold temperatures is interspersed with flashbacks to Togo as a feisty and mischievous pup that Seppala twice tried to give away. These glimpses into the life of young Togo add plenty of chuckles and outright laughter to counteract the more serious and harrowing trials the team faces retrieving the antitoxin.

Unbeknownst to Seppala, while en route to pick up the serum, the officials decide to send a second team of dogs out from Nome to meet him, driven by Gunnar Kaasen and led by another one of Seppala's lead dogs, Balto. That team made the final leg of the relay and Balto was hailed as the hero dog who saved the town despite the fact that Togo, leading Seppala's team, ran the most hazardous and longest leg of the relay.

William Dafoe as Leonard Seppala  (Source:Chris Large / Disney Enterprises)

While the premise of the film is the life-saving serum run, the underlying story is that of the incredible bond between musher and dog. Despite his earlier frustration at puppy Togo's canine delinquency and Seppala's insistence that the pup lacked the potential to be a good sled dog, Togo grew to prove his worth both as a lead dog and as one of Seppala's most treasured companions. According to historian Earl Aversano, Seppala later reminisced, "I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail." (Wikipedia)

Dafoe does a decent job playing the role of Seppala, but the true stars of this movie are the various animal actors that play Togo as a pup and an adult. In one scene, young Togo demonstrates a truly remarkable escape out of a barn, balancing across cross beams and climbing in and out of cabinets and other furniture. You will laugh, you will cheer, and you will definitely fall in love with Togo and the animal actors that portray him.

The real Togo and Leonard Seppala  (Source:Wikipedia)

Kudos to Disney and the screenwriters for their accuracy in recounting both the events of the Serum Run as well as the history of Seppala and Togo; I found very little variance from the truth, which is often not the case in movies such as this. The casting was also superb for the roles of Togo and Seppala - it's actually a bit uncanny how closely Dafoe and the husky resemble Seppala and the real Togo.

Disney+ truly hit the mark with this film. Anyone who loves a feel-good dog movie with a dash of adventure and some amazing scenery (the film was shot in Alberta and British Columbia) will enjoy this film. And as a breeder and dog musher myself? Well, I personally can't wait to watch it again!

"Togo" will be available to stream on Disney+ starting December 20.

Jaye Foucher resides in central New Hampshire with 30 Siberian Husky sleddogs. She is one of EDGE Media Network's tech gurus and occasionally writes reviews.

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