Willem Dafoe is stranded in the wilderness again, but in something more family friendly than The Lighthouse.

Has any sub-genre managed to remain as enduring, without ever producing a single film that could be considered essential, quite like the “dog movie”? The formulas of these stories are as old as the concept of narrative itself, focussing on canine hijinks before tragedy strikes, and the beloved pet barks its last bark. And as the success of Marley and Me (which rejuvenated the public interest in the genre more than a decade ago) proved, this might as well be the one critic proof genre too – films like A Dog’s Purpose may not break box office records, but they do consistently prove there will always be an audience for big screen tales of four legged friends.

All of the Disney Plus original movies streaming so far feel like throwbacks to an earlier era of live action family filmmaking, but even amongst this company, Togo stands out. It foregrounds itself in the face of tragedy rather than use cheap sentimentality to endure tears from its viewers. This is a mid budget proposition presumably green-lit to recapture the spirit of Old Yeller, the kind of movie Disney doesn’t make for theatrical release anymore, that tries to find something emotionally honest in overly familiar conventions, preferring to earn its tears rather than force them out of you. Whether young audiences will care is anyone’s guess – but if older people are going to throw down money to subscribe to the mouse house’s service, it’ll be based entirely on charming but disposable throwbacks like this. 

In 1925, Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe) brings it upon himself to save his small Alaskan town by taking his sled dogs with him on a 700 mile round trip pick up a serum for a disease that’s affecting the children there, which can’t be flown in due to hazardous weather conditions. He’s advised against it, as his lead dog Togo is now 12 years of age, but he persists – and as he makes the journey across mountains and giant lakes of ice, we flash back and see how he came to love a dog he originally tried his hardest to find a home with literally anybody else. 

The film Togo most resembles is the one Disney (sorry, 20th Century Fox… no, sorry, “20th Century Pictures”) released theatrically earlier this year: The Call of the Wild. This isn’t just for the base similarity of seeing two older actors in the wilderness with only doggos for company, but the fact they’re trying to recapture the spirit of old character driven adventure movies that couldn’t feel further out of step with contemporary blockbuster fare. Again, it remains to be seen just how interested Disney’s core viewers (ie: children) will be in seeing Willem Dafoe yelling poetry in a voice not a million miles from his character in The Lighthouse as sled dogs pull him across ice, but this seems to be the rare Disney property that doesn’t have them in mind as a priority.

The one difference between the two films is that, whereas The Call of the Wild used motion capture actor Terry Notary to stand in for the dog, Togo uses a real canine performer for all the domestic scenes, or sequences where the animals aren’t in danger. You’d be forgiven for not noticing this, however, and not just because of the awkward CGI used to replicate the animals during the perilous expedition. 

Director Ericson Core is here taking the unusual step of acting as his own cinematographer, and seems to be trying to create an artificial sense of wonder by rendering the vast majority of domestic scenes in post production so they look like they’ve been captured during the magic hour. Terrence Malick this is not – and on a small screen, this filter makes everything look artificial, which is to the detriment of the well trained canine performer Diesel, appearing in the titular role, who could easily be mistaken for a digital effect in such off putting lighting. 

Togo is free to stream with a Disney+ subscription. It launches in the UK on March 24th

Alistair Ryder

Updated: Mar 20, 2020

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