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In pop culture, “Balto” is a familiar name. The dog is known for being at the center of the story surrounding the famed 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska, and in addition to having a statute memorializing his life in New York’s Central Park, in 1995 there was even a movie about him featuring Kevin Bacon, Bridget Fonda, Phil Collins, and Bob Hoskins. However, while there’s no denying that Balto was a good dog, he’s also been overshadowing the true hero of the legendary tale for decades now.
That’s where director Ericson Core’s new Disney+ movie Togo comes in. In addition to being an excellent, animal-centric adventure film reminiscent of classics like The Incredible Journey and White Fang, the feature also aims to set the record straight in regards to the true hero of the 1925 serum run. And it’s an aspect of the new release that I recently got to discuss with stars Willem Dafoe and Julianne Nicholson:
It’s true that Balto was a sled dog on the team that delivered the diphtheria antitoxin to the small town of Nome, Alaska during a terrible outbreak of the disease in 1925, but the reality of the narrative is that Balto’s efforts were minimal compared to what was achieved by the titular canine in Togo – depicted in the new film as being amplified by a journalist on the scene looking to associate a strong name with the events.
As noted right before the end credits of the new film, there were a total of 20 dog sled teams, and 19 of them – including the one Balto was a part of – ran an average of 31 miles as part of what turned out to be a relay race-esque mission through a dangerous blizzard to get the serum to the dying children of Nome. The team led by Togo, meanwhile, ran an incredible 264 miles to get the job done.
Togo still doesn’t have a statue in Central Park, however, at the very least now, almost 100 years later, he is starting to get the recognition that he deserves.
This was one of my big takeaways after recently getting to see the film, and so I asked Willem Dafoe and Julianne Nicholson about it when I had the chance to sit down with them for an interview. It was a conversation that wonderfully resulted in Dafoe doing his best Togo impression, given that the dog can’t speak for himself, but Nicholson did add that getting the truth about the wonderful animal was influential in her desire to be a part of the project:
When I read it, it became an important part of telling the tale for me. Just sort of getting his name and this story out there. It felt like an important story to tell.