A film review by Craig J. Koban April 16, 2019


2019, PG, 96 mins.


Bryce Dallas Howard as Bella (voice)  /  Ashley Judd as Terri  /  Alexandra Shipp as Olivia  /  Edward James Olmos as Axel  /  Jonah Hauer-King as Lucas  /  Wes Studi as Captain Mica  /  Chris Bauer as Kurch  /  Patrick Gallagher as Teo

Directed by Charles Martin Smith  /  Written by W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon, based on Cameron's book





Full disclosure: 

I'm more of a cat man.  

Sorry, canine lovers.  

However, I don't hate dogs.  I like dogs too.  

But I hate dumb movies about dogs.  

Actually, I hate dumb movies about any type of animal. 

I just wanted to throw that all out there before I officially review A DOG'S WAY HOME, just so I don't, as I move forward, come off as some smug feline lover.  Just to be clear, there have been many movies involving talking animals - in one form or another - that I've cherished.  The BABE series comes to mind (granted, that's a family film about talking pigs).  MILO AND OTIS and HOMEBOUND BOUND also come to mind (both of which feature cats and dogs). 

But A DOG'S WAY HOME - based on the book of the same name by W. Bruce Cameron, which I'm told, in turn, is based on a true story - is another entry in an awfully long list of dogs stranded far, far away from their owners that desperately try to find their way home films.  I've seen so many permutations of this genre that they all start to mess together after awhile.  I have no problem with sentimental and child friendly entertainment, and A DOG'S WAY HOME certainly has the noblest of intentions.  Unfortunately, the end result is creatively mediocre and lacking in genuine inspiration, not to mention the fact that it has this ultra annoying - and some would say offensive - manner of trying to delve into some serious social justice messages and other complex themes that seems incongruent from the rest of the film.   

That, and A DOG'S WAY HOME is so manipulative in terms of ringing tears from your eye sockets that it become almost unintentionally laughable. 



The film opens by introducing us to its dog in question, a stray mixed breed pit bull named Bella (whose innermost thoughts and desires are provided in a voiceover track narrated by Bryce Dallas Howard, more on that it a bit), who as a puppy was raised by a mother cat underneath an abandoned house in Denver.  She's discovered by Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), who works at a local VA hospital and decides that he must stage an intervention and take in the young and hungry Bella.  Back at home her Afghan War veteran mother (Ashley Judd) seems initially concerned that she and her son will be kicked out of their home, seeing as their landlord has a strict no pets policy (plus, the city has an ultra strict no pit bulls ordinance, more on that too in a bit).  But - gosh darn it! - Bella is just too damn cute, and both Lucas and his mother decide to keep her, even though it means having to keep her existence a secret from their landlord and local police. 

Rather predictably, the local city bylaws enforcement officer (John Cassini) discovers Bella being unlawfully kept in Jonah's home, which forces him to take heartbreaking action.  In order to save this pup's life, he decides send Bella to a temporary home way over in New Mexico and well away from any damn pesky anti-pit bull laws that threaten to destroy her.  Bella seems relatively content in her new surroundings, but her heart remains with Jonah and his mom, so she decides to act spontaneously one fateful day and escapes from her new family to make the extraordinarily long and dangerous trek across America to be back with those she loves the most.  Of course, she faces multiple environmental hardships that prove nearly fatal on top of battling severe hunger and thirst.  She crosses paths with a few well meaning humans along the way, but finds a new friend in the form of an extremely friendly baby cougar that grows up with her during her two year journey.  There's also avalanches, a dying homeless man, and packs of ravenous wolves that figures into Bella's journey...just not in that order.

It's really hard for me to come down hard on this film that deserves ridicule without coming off as a heartless jerk, because, gee whiz, that Bella sure is a cutie in this film and hard to hate.  I guess I'm comfortable with the fact that this film is an awwwww generating machine kicked into overdrive.  Director Charles Martin Smith (yes, Terry the Toad from AMERICAN GRAFFITI) has the terribly difficult challenge of making a talking doggie movie that features said doggie making a frankly and wholeheartedly impossible journey across 400 miles of America to be back home with his human.  Realizing how idiotically implausible this story is on paper, he's forced to lay on the saccharine qualities of this dog's tale in overdosing quantities to elicit our gut instinct to reach for multiple Kleenexes.  

Let's talk about some of the people and animals that Bella comes in contact with.  One of the more off-putting examples is her hooking up with a male gay couple, which is perfectly fine, to be honest (how often do we see homosexual couples in family friendly fare?).  But A DOG'S WAY HOME kind of lazily throws them into the narrative and then hastily chucks them away without much thought, which forces me to question their inclusion in the first place.  Then there's the shockingly and awfully rendered relationship that Bella develops with the aforementioned cougar, that latter of which is the product of some of the most wretched and rushed CGI effects of an animal that I've seen in a recent mainstream film.  I mean, there's never one single moment in A DOG'S WAY HOME that I believed Bella was actually interacting with a wild animal.  It's so phony beyond belief.  Not helping matters is a battle between the cougar, Bella, and those wolves, which looks like some sort of poorly rendered video game cut scene.  Then there's that avalanche, which is about as unconvincing of an avalanche as one could ever expect to see.  Oy vey.

Let's also talk about Bryce Dallas Howard's inner Bella voiceover track.  I'm quite sure it exists here to appease and soothe young child viewers (it has the calming effect of a kindergarten teacher reading a bedtime story).  I kind of liked it early on, but then when Howard's narration goes on and on...and on...and is literally sprinkled into the most inconsequential of moments it becomes almost distractingly unnecessary.  Then I started to think about how much better this film could have been without any narration track at all by creating small moments of dramatic and comic intrigue based on Bella's actions and reactions alone.  There have been so many iterations of talking animal films over the years to keep track of, and most are starting to aggravate me for their lack of creativity.  A DOG'S WAY HOME is no different and is one pure autopilot in this regard.  

One last thing that bugged me about this film...and then I'm done and moving on.  The way A DOG'S WAY HOME uses war veterans and the nightmarish struggles of PTSD as a pretty mechanical plot device to propel the plot towards a feel-good and inspirational climax is really, really shameless.  Equally eye rolling is this film's handling of an extremely problematic and convoluted issue of anti-dog breed legislation (Denver is one of nearly a thousand U.S. cities that employs such deeply polarizing laws).  The makers of A DOG'S TALE don't seem to have anything truly revelatory or insightful to say about it, other than to easily label it as dog racism.  It's a pretty empty headed examination of the issues at play, so much so that I wanted to film to go back to more insipid moments of Bella interacting with horribly rendered computer rendered forest animals.  Speaking of Bella, the actor dog behind this film has a truly superb tale of survival all on her own.  She's played by Shelby, who the filmmakers discovered in a Tennessee dog shelter after living a horrendously filthy and disease threatening life in a garbage dump.  Now, she's a movie star emerging from nothingness.  What a truly heart-tugging story that's worthy of exploration on the silver screen. 

That's the type of doggie movie I want to see...not A DOG'S WAY HOME.

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