FILM REVIEW – A DOG’S WAY HOME. With Bryce Dallas Howard (voice), Ashley Judd, Alexandra Shipp, Jonah Hauer-King, Edward James Olmos. Written by W. Bruce Cameron & Cathryn Michon. Directed by Charles Martin Smith. Rated PG for thematic elements, some peril and language. 96 minutes.
You may not have noticed, but there’s an actual genre of movies in which an animal – almost inevitably a dog – is separated from his or her owner and has a series of adventures while trying to get home. This includes “The Incredible Journey” (1963) and “A Dog’s Purpose” (2017). The latter is especially significant because author W. Bruce Cameron, who wrote the novel and worked on the screenplay, handled similar chores on A DOG’S WAY HOME and the forthcoming “A Dog’s Journey.”
These family films – which also appeal to animal lovers – purport to give us the animal’s point-of-view about navigating the world. From a cinematic viewpoint, what’s interesting is the staging, filming, and editing of scenes to support that perspective. In that, the selection of director Charles Martin Smith was shrewd as he worked (as an actor) in “Never Cry Wolf” and (as a director) on a “Dolphin Tale.” He’s clearly conversant and comfortable with movies involving humans and mammals interacting.
The story focuses on Bella (a real-life junkyard stray voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) who is adopted by Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), an animal-loving medical student working at the Veterans’ Administration in Denver. Bella is a stray mutt but has sufficient markings as a pit bull that she is endangered by (according to the movie) a Denver ordinance that bans such dogs within the city. While Lucas and his mother Terri (Ashley Judd) try to find a new home outside city limits, Bella is sent to New Mexico to stay with a friendly family.
What follows is Bella leaving the family to “go home” to Lucas, a process that will take up the bulk of the film. Along the way she will be taken in by a gay couple, a homeless veteran (Edward James Olmos), and – in the film’s most impressive sequences – a cougar. There are various subplots, but the main storyline is always about Bella striving to get back to Lucas, while occasionally being tempted by other “family” possibilities along the way.
Smith clearly understands the material and its appeal to specific audiences. For kids there are moments of drama and threats, such as when Bella is threatened by a wolf pack. For adults it is Bella’s attempts to understand the world around her, sometimes getting it right, and sometimes finding it beyond her ability to cope. It’s completely manipulative, of course, with the guaranteed happy ending – did you have any doubt? – likely to generate a few tears or, at least, a lump in the throat.
“A Dog’s Way Home” is a formula movie designed to provoke particular reactions, not reveal something about the human or animal condition. If it isn’t a great artistic achievement, it is a well-crafted movie that achieves exactly what it sets out to do. If you find such material appealing, it will work. If you’re so cynical that you find the very concept nauseating, then watching this will not change your mind.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released this month. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.