Many movies, animated and otherwise, have been made about the events that inspired Alaska’s famed Iditarod sled dog race.
Disney’s “Togo” is far and away the most factual of all the many movies about the 1925 Nome epidemic and “The Great Mercy Run,” the dog sled relay run that saved it.
There’s plenty of Hollywood hokum, superhuman and supercanine feats, liberties with topography in the film. But “Togo” is the first version of this story that emphasizes that there were many teams, many mushers — most of them Native Inuit — involved, that the much-heralded Balto — object of a fine animated film on the story — wasn’t the only dog of note, merely the most publicized.
“Togo” has drama, heroism and pathos. And it hangs on the grand, craggy and weather-worn features of the great Willem Dafoe, one of the finest actors of his generation turned loose on a role with built-in theatricality.
There aren’t many who could launch into a Norwegian musher’s version of Shakespeare’s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from “Henry V,” epic poetry to inspire his dogs, “we happy few,” and not seem utterly ridiculous. Dafoe makes this corny moment kind of magnificent.
Diphtheria breaks out in remote Nome in the middle of the winter of 1925. Thousands might die, with children the most vulnerable. A serum was available in Anchorage.
But there was no rail line, ice covered sounds preventing shipping and primitive airplanes would never make it to the town in 60 below snow squalls with 50 mile per hour winds. Only sled dogs would do. Only Norwegian immigrant Leonhard Seppala could guide them through 674 miles of frozen, blizzard-blocked wasteland.
And Seppala wouldn’t make the run without his aged lead dog, the “runt of the litter,” Togo.
It wasn’t until days after Seppala took off that the governor came up with the idea of a relay run, using mail carrying mushers (most of them Natives) to rush the medicine through. But Seppala was already crossing frozen Nelson Sound, braving the worst Alaska’s winters have to give with his trusty team of huskies.
He and his dogs endure frigid white hell to make the trip from way station to way station. And as they do, curmudgeonly Seppala remembers the “damned mutt” he hated, tried to give away (and considered worse) whom he’s entrusted with his and his team’s lives.
“St. Francis of Assisi would shoot this dog,” Leonhard grouses at the sickly “runt” wife Constance (Julianne Nicholson) insists on saving, treating and indulging as the little pup grows up to be healthy and seriously rambunctious.
The grace notes in Ericson Core’s film, based on a romantic Tom Flynn script, begin with the depiction of Seppala’s marriage. Nicholson lends heart and whimsy to this partnership. She and Dafoe make it a warm relationship with spark and wit.
“I’ll be back before you know it.”
“I won’t even make the bed.”
Constance keeps the faith, saves the dog and rolls her eyes at every escape he makes from the kennel, every time he comes back after Leonhard tries to give him away. And when people later question what her husband and his fellow mushers will do under these conditions, Nicholson puts a lump in your throat when Constance declares that none of them would “sit in front of a warm fire while children are dying,” and you remember the stakes involved.
Sentiment could easily overwhelm the picture, and make no mistake — you will cry over this one.
But in setting out to get it right, in not going the ridiculous “Call of the Wild” Harrison Ford with digital dogs in digital landscapes route, Disney’s made a kid-friendly/dog-loving epic that harks back to some children’s classics of the genre.
MPA Rating: PG for some peril, thematic elements and mild language
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Julianne Nicholson, Nive Nielsen, Michael Greyeyes, Christopher Heyerdahl
Credits: Directed by Ericson Core, script by Tom Flynn. A Disney+ release.
Running time: 1:53