Forget Tiger King. If you’re social distancing and want to see a pet get screwed over, we recommend that you watch Disney+’s Togo (which is about the eponymous sled dog, not the country in West Africa).
Yes, we recognize that the film came out in December, but we implore you to recognize that time is an illusion. The ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has exposed that reality.
A cinephile who obsessively keeps track of movies, David was reminded of Togo upon locking eyes with Rudy’s Beanie Baby husky. And so we watched the film, which depicts musher Leonhard Seppala and his wife Constance (played by Willem Dafoe and Julianne Nicholson, respectively) raising the adorable blue-eyed runt of the litter into the hero of the 1925 serum run to Nome.
Quickly, Rudy became confused. Wasn’t this, he asked himself, similar to the plot of the 1995 classic Balto? For Rudy, watching Balto as a child was a formative experience. He began to wonder whether the story he had so cherished was untrue, whether the iconic statue in New York’s Central Park — of which he had such fond memories — was a false idol.
Midway through the film, we endeavored to seek a truth free of the bias of Hollywood dramatics. A quick Google search confirmed our worst nightmare: The story of Togo was indeed more historically accurate. To better understand why Togo deserves the glory that Balto stole, a quick summary of the most thrilling canine adventure in history is necessary. Nome, Alaska was in the thralls of a dastardly winter in 1925. The icebound port was inaccessible, spelling doom for the sleepy city, unreachable to the rest of the nation.
In January, a three-year-old boy in Nome was hospitalized with a sore throat, fever and difficulty breathing. Two weeks later, he passed away. Doctors determined he was suffering from diptheria, an infection transmitted through coughing and being in close proximity to one another (sound familiar?) that is fatal without the proper antitoxin.
Soon, 20 more cases sprung up in Nome, leading to fears of an epidemic. The mayor enacted a mandated quarantine (hopefully with an emphasis on keeping six feet apart). To prevent the infection from decimating the population, citizens devised a plan to bring the antitoxin to their isolated town: a dogsled relay.
Multiple dogsled teams were positioned along the 674-mile stretch between Nome and Nenana, the closest city with a railroad station to which the antitoxin could be delivered. The longest and most dangerous stretch was the penultimate one, helmed by Seppala. At the ripe age of 12, Togo led this team over 260 miles, across rugged tundra and frozen lakes, through blizzards and the bitter cold. Seppala made the handoff to Gunnar Kaasen, who traveled 55 miles with a team of dogs co-led by — you guessed it — Balto. That’s right; he wasn’t even the sole leader of the team, and he covered only a fifth of the distance that Togo ran. All he did was performatively cross the finish line.
You might be confused then as to why Balto was immortalized as a bronze statue in Central Park. You might be confused as to why the popular children’s book written in 1977 by Margaret Anderson is titled Balto: The Dog Who Saved Nome. You must really be befuddled as to why an entire franchise of animated films was made about Balto, depicting a grossly fabricated version of events that paints him as a god-like figure that single-handedly saved thousands from a virulent outbreak. Among all of these commemorations, where is Togo? Nowhere to be found. In fact, his story remained lost until the 2019 film was released to an exclusive streaming platform inaccessible to the masses bereft of Disney+.
And so we embarked on a quest of our own to ensure that Togo and his heroic feat were not buried in the avalanche of misportrayals of the back-up dog that was Balto. Taking to social media, we posted on our Instagram stories a quick summary of Togo’s achievements in order to dispel any false beliefs amongst our followers that Balto was the shining savior of Nome.
Some backlash was to be expected. When Rudy’s friend showed the post to her father, he demanded she give him Rudy’s phone number so that he could lambast his “ill-conceived Togo venture.”
“Hello, Rudy,” he texted. “When I was in Alaska 15 years ago, I bought a Balto book to read to my kids and they LOVED it. So, your attempt to elevate Togo is an affront to a cherished memory.”
Rudy explained the importance of overcoming cognitive dissonance and the need to face the truth.
“For some reason, I really sympathize with Togo’s narrative (and I should probably unpack that), but for now I encourage you and your family to join me in this movement,” Rudy wrote. “You need to understand that Balto is a vile miscreant. COVID-19 needs a hero, and it should be Togo!”
“No,” he replied.
“Don’t you have an ounce of sympathy for the literal underdog?” Rudy asked.
Nevertheless, we persisted.
The next night, even more riled up about the neglect of the world, we decided to hate-watch Balto. The film confirmed that history has officially been Balto-washed. The children of the world have been exposed to a lie for the past three-and-a-half decades: the fantastical quest that an elderly woman (played by Miriam Margolyes) tells to her granddaughter.
After Balto “saves the day,” the little girl asks, “Balto really did all of that, didn’t he, Grandma?”
“Oh, yes, sweetheart,” the grandmother responds, “he really did.” As David wrote in his Letterboxd review: “NO HE FUCKING DIDN’T!!”
After 77 minutes of flagrant make-believe, Balto then ends with the message: “BASED ON A TRUE STORY.” What a line of malarkey. Hardly anything about the film is based on a true story, aside from Balto being a dog. Even that is a stretch; the film portrays him as a half-wolf outcast when in reality he was a purebred Siberian husky. (Elitist, we know.) This is an example of revisionist history à la Inglourious Basterds, except it is being marketed toward children, poisoning society’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Again, forget Tiger King. The truest crime story is Togo being robbed of the limelight that he has deserved for nearly a century.
As alarming as Orwellian propaganda is, we recognize that we are perhaps overly passionate about this cause. Perhaps we have too much time on our hands. Rudy is perhaps — nay, definitely — projecting his insecurities onto Togo.
But in all seriousness, now is a time of fear and bias, with sinophobia and misinformation spreading alongside COVID-19. Make sure you’re spreading the truth instead.
Doctors, nurses and frontline health-care workers are risking their lives, as did Togo. Make sure you’re showing your gratitude for those and other unsung heroes. Amid unprecedented uncertainty, remember to always show your appreciation for friends and family members. Don’t take anyone or anything for granted. And above all: #JusticeForTogo.