Jan 19, 2020
Welcome back for another week of reviews! This week, we have an odd mixture of films for your consumption. Today, I’ll be reviewing a surprise critical hit on Disney+, followed by my review tomorrow for the triumphant return of the Bad Boys franchise on Matinee Mondays. Mafia Hairdresser will be returning on Takeover Tuesday with his review of RICHARD JEWELL. Our review of SANDOW, along with interview segments of writer/director Alexander Cooper, will have the spotlight on Indie Wednesday. Thursday we’ll have the obligatory return of Shane Hyde, as outlined in the One Movie Punch Secret Volcano Lair Accords signed after last year’s Reign of Terror 2019. Friday, Andrew covers COLOR OUT OF SPACE, a cosmic thriller based on Lovecraft’s short story, and I’ll close out the week with an equally bizarre offering, 2017’s THE WILD BOYS as part of our Under the Kanopy series, returning to Saturdays for First Quarter. Something for everyone in there, along with a few things for just a few people.
Over on our Patreon feed today, we’ll have the latest installment in “One Movie Punch Presents: Zero Percent”, where I review a film which achieved the lowest possible score at Rotten Tomatoes. This week’s feature will be 2018’s KILLERS ANONYMOUS, a London-based thriller with a lot of twists and turns. Is the film truly a cinematic flop, or is it merely a flawed crime thriller with a bad edit? Head on over to patreon.com/onemoviepunch to find out. While you’re there, sign up to contribute at any level. Your contribution goes to paying our expenses and will help us grow with our audience. You’ll also become eligible for Sponsor Sundays, which you’ll hear more about in today’s promo.
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Today’s movie is TOGO(2019), the epic adventure film directed by Ericson Core and written for the screen by Tom Flynn. The film follows the untold events of the 1925 Nome serum run, when a dog sled relay team delivered medicine to fight the diphtheria outbreak. When no other way seemed possible, Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe) heads into the terrible storm to get the medicine, whose team is lead by Togo, an irascible, lovable, and powerful dog who managed lead the team over 264 miles.
Disney definitely has a thing for dog stories. In addition to the recent live-action adaptation of LADY AND THE TRAMP (Episode #644), they have helmed a number of dog-centered films and franchises, including: the original 1955 LADY AND THE TRAMP, 1957’s OLD YELLER, THE SHAGGY DOG franchise, 1961’s 101 DALMATIANS and the live-action remakes, the HOMEWARD BOUND franchise, the WHITE FANG franchise, the surprisingly prolific AIR BUD and subsequent spinoff AIR BUDDIES franchises, and the infamous BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHUA franchise, plus a host of many, many more. And that’s because people love dogs of all sorts.
And it’s not just Disney. Dog films proliferate the at-home and nascent streaming markets, finding critical and box office success, especially 1974’s BENJI (recently remade for Netflix and reviewed in Episode #076), which was so successful that Disney wanted in on the action with their own sequel. In fact, Disney went into overdrive after 1974’s BENJI, especially in the at-home and rental markets, producing low-cost, high-revenue films. If anyone knows how to make dog films at this point, it is definitely Disney.
The real question is why tell this story? Well, honestly, in an effort to correct the record regarding the famous 1925 Nome Serum Run. Most folks know the story because of Balto, one of two lead sled dogs who did the final leg of the run, and popularized as a hero across the world. A statue was erected in New York for Balto, and a live-action and animated film was produced in 1995, naturally entitled BALTO. Two sequels followed, and our family ended up watching all three with One Movie Spawn in her earlier years. But, Balto just managed the last leg of the run, a mere 26 miles. Meanwhile, Leonhard Seppala and Togo had left ahead of time, to make the trek with their team alone, covering over 264 miles, over ten times the distance of Balto, and over much worse terrain. Balto got the press, though, and the glory, which the animated film didn’t help to quash. So, TOGO, the film, is a major effort to correct the historical record.
The Alaskan Wilderness has always been a fascinating setting for stories, particularly on the frontier. The harshness of the setting, combined with its beauty, creates a natural backdrop. And you can tell a wide range of stories, anything from Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” or “White Fang” (we covered a recent animated adaptation in Episode #191) all the way to Jeremy Saulnier’s HOLD THE DARK (Episode #272). The stories generally focus on man versus the elements, which provide a relatively neutral story to tell. If there’s any criticism of the use of this scenery, it’s that the ongoing climate collapse has made many portions look much drier than the early 1900s, a scary reminder of our current planetary trajectory.
TOGO is definitely a survival adventure film, told with a combination of actual background scenery and necessary use of green screen, especially to capture the more daring portions of Sepalla and Togo’s story. The green screen can be noticeable, but no more so than your average superhero film, especially because we know Dafoe isn’t racing downhill or crossing a shattering sound, but it still grips the viewer, even on a small screen. The storytelling moves between the 1925 serum run and flashbacks to Togo’s hilarious and trying upbringing, often called Satan by Leonhard after making mischief. The viewer, as such, rides a roller coaster of tense survivalist adventure and heartwarming vignettes about both characters, building towards a not unexpected conclusion.
Willem Dafoe is a consummate actor, and he definitely gets more than one opportunity to engage in lengthy exposition. Seppala, as a character, constantly talks to his pups, encouraging them, guiding them, and if we’re being honest, encouraging and guiding himself in the process. Dafoe’s performance is excellent, especially from someone who has the cache to appear in both TOGO through Disney, and the recent PASOLINI (Episode #671) which was a decidedly different (and not safe for work/family) affair. He has real talent, and brings it to every role, including Seppala. The supporting cast, particularly Julianne Nicholson as Seppala’s wife Constance, is all top quality as well.
But the real stars of the movie, as with most dog movies, are the dogs which played Togo. Siberian huskies are some of the smartest, most loving dogs on the planet. A certifiable good boy name Diesel plays adult Togo, along with a younger version of Togo in the flashbacks. And Diesel always does a good job on the screen, because he is such a heckin good doggo. It’s nice that Togo gets a Hollywood story to celebrate his name, even if the story as a whole isn’t quite true to life. The differences will be left to the viewer as an exercise. The fictionalizations don’t detract from the story itself, and definitely make for a better film that, at least, partially corrects the record.
TOGOis a gripping, heartwarming survival adventure that corrects the historical record regarding the 1925 serum run, while also introducing us all to last century’s certifiable good boy, Togo. While fictionalizing and embellishing the role for the sake of good filmmaking, the core story remains unaffected, and is loving brought to the screen with high-quality effects. If this is the caliber of film that Disney+ has in mind for their streaming service, then we’re in for a world of excellent features going forward. Disney fans, and dog fans, should absolutely see this film, along with anyone else fascinated by the Alaskan wilderness. Everyone else, if you’re looking for a great family film, especially a man/dog vs. nature film, look no further.
Rotten Tomatoes: 96% (CERTIFIED FRESH)
One Movie Punch: 8.5/10
TOGO (2019) is rated PG and is currently playing on Disney+.