Despite controversy that erupted in 2017 concerning alleged abuse of animals on set of “A Dog’s Purpose” tow more the works of W. Bruce Cameron have been adapted to the screen for 2019 with not only a sequel of the aforementioned filmed set for this May but another film, “A Dog’s Way Home”, released this weekend. Cameron seems to have found a surprisingly underutilized niche in audiences these days, capturing the hearts of countless readers thanks to the connections humans share with their canine companions. “A Dog’s Way Home” attempts to explore the opposite side of that spectrum, a dog’s connection to their human, through a pup’s journey home. This film had a lot of potential to be an overplayed pandering but it’s narrative also left an opening a bit more substance. Let’s see what it has to offer. His is my review of “A Dog’s Way Home”.
“A Dog’s Way Home” follows a pup named Bella whose inner monologue is voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard. Bella meets and bonds with a young medical student named Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) who resides in Denver, Colorado where pit bulls are considered illegal. Bella soon becomes an important part of Lucas’ family, serving as a therapy dog for his veteran mother Terri (Ashley Judd), tagging along on dates between Lucas and his love interest Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) and bonding with veterans at the local VA. When Bella is targeted by a local animal control officer and threatened with euthonization she is moved away temporarily to save her life but decides to find her way home to Lucas leading her on a years-long adventure where she bonds with different people and animals as she tries to reach home.
“A Dog’s Way Home” doesn’t sport a lot of big names, but those involved are alright. Newcomer Jonah Hauer-King is the main human character Lucas and we can see a genuine connection between him and Bella that is bound to remind anyone watching about their good times with their own pup. Alexandra Shipp and Ashley Judd serve as supporting characters and while they’re nothing special they are compassionate characters that are just corny enough to satisfy the child friendly tone of the film but don’t take it to the point of ridiculousness. I liked these people and I appreciated who they were which is important considering we want to believe Bella is in a good home. There are some other nice characters that Bella meets along the way including a gay couple, a nice touch in a family movie really, and a grizzled old veteran named Axel, played by Edward James Olmos. While they’re not given the best material to work with the actors involved do a good job at capturing the relationship man has with dogs each with their own emotional needs and investment that drives home the idea nicely, again without feeling to ridiculous or overplayed.
But in the end this story is not about the humans as much as it is about the dog, Bella, who is voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard. This is where the film fell off the rails for me. Bella should NOT have had an inner monologue. Now don’t get me wrong I like Howard. I think she’s a great actress. But here, her performances feels so disconnected from the rest of the film. Her inflections and script reading just doesn’t match most of the scenes and it seems like they had her read her lines while watching the movie and used the first take. She sounds like she’s reading from a children’s book and it sucks all the charm out of Bella as a character. By the second act Howard’s narration and voiceover actually became so annoying and grating I started to drown her out. The dog, or dogs, they use to portray Bella emotes surprisingly well so I didn’t even need Howard to spoon-feed what was going through her mind. We could see it on screen. This film would have been SO much better without the voiceover and the fact that it flips between narration and inner monologuing so abruptly proved to be confusing. Is Bella recalling this story in the present? Is she narrating her life as it happens? It all plays into my opinion that Howard’s performance is overplayed and feels like she’s reading out of a storybook to entertain little children, not trying to add genuine personality and character to Bella.
“A Dog’s Way Home” also suffers from horrendous CGI. I mean really there doesn’t look to have been any effort to have added any realism to the presentation at all. A lot of the focus on Bella uses a real dog stand-in, which it nice, but other animals like coyotes and a cougar become a big part of her journey and boy do they look horrible. The cougar especially is a huge eyesore considering we spend a good chunk of the movie exploring the relationship between this animal and Bella. One scene in particular shows the two of them playing in the snow and both animals are computer generated through some of the worst mainstream effects I’ve seen in years. Maybe 15 years ago we could have overlooked it, but CGI has come a long way in that time and phoned in visuals like this, even for a kids/family film, are unforgivable. This combined with Howard’s performance gave two impressions for this film. On one hand it made the whole thing feel thrown together and clunky. It didn’t feel like there was as much heart put into the production as there was the story, because the story really is touching. Second, it gave this film a B-movie, straight to video vibe that made me wonder at times how this ended up in a theater. Even cheaply made movies are done better than this these day so while “A Dog’s Way Home” isn’t unwatchable, it’s scant $18 million budget shows and even for that price I feel like we could have gotten a better product.
That said as I already admitted “A Dog’s Way Home” does have a nice story. At first going into it I had immediate memories of the 90s cult classic “Homeward Bound”. Pet gets lost, pet goes on a perilous journey full of adventures to get home and you know how this ends. But by the time Bella gets on with her adventure “A Dog’s Way Home” does manage to find its own footing and identity. It does borrow a lot from “Homeward Bound” including the appearance of a wild cat and Bella speaking without moving her mouth, but very few times did I feel like I was watching a rehash of one of my childhood favorites. “A Dog’s Way Home” explores its own themes and unique experiences for Bella and even packs some nice lessons for us as people to appreciate as well. It touches on the neglect of veterans, the significance of dogs as therapy animals, the idea that family can be what you make it especially in the relationship between Bella and the cougar, and, my favorite theme, the unwarranted judgement of dogs breeds like pit bulls. That to me is the film’s strongest message. Bella is a sweetheart of a dog who is threatened with being euthanize because she’s considered a pit bull, a broad determination for dog breeds. An overarching theme tackles what one character calls “racism for dogs” and as someone who feels pit bulls get a bad rep I found myself connecting to that message and getting an emotional rush from its resolution. So, Despite the flaws “A Dog’s Way Home” does have substance to offer, it just doesn’t have a lot else to help support it. Sure, it’s schmaltzy, but what do you expect from a dog film? That’s kind of the point.
While I didn’t enjoy “A Dog’s Way Home” to the fullest I appreciated what it had to offer. Its message is sound, it does have a lot of heart and it will probably bring a tear or two to those who can connect with the bond between man and dog. That’s its goal first and foremost and while it is guilty of pandering to emotions, I get it and I can’t fault it to much especially since it adds some real substance and nice messages in the mix to justify it. But no amount of substance can help me overlook the errors that plague this movie. The CGI is horrible, the story is frankly very rushed, and the inner monologue/voiceover of Bella, which we hear A LOT, is really annoying and took me out of the film around every turn. The whole experience felt phoned in and lacking conviction for me and it definitely had that straight to video vibe that kind of made me regret seeing it on the big screen. If you’re an animal lover and you enjoyed “A Dog’s Purpose” or even “Homeward Bound” I guarantee you’ll find something redeemable about this film, but for me it’s redeemable qualities are overshadowed by a lack of effort that makes this a viewing experience I don’t need again anytime soon.