To be perfectly honest, if I were a child I’d probably love A Dog’s Way Home. I say this not just because the children at my screening seemed riveted and on the literal edge of their seat seats. No, I say this because I remember loving movies like Benji the Hunted and The Adventures of Milo and Otis.
It goes back even further though. Hollywood has long peddled movies such as Black Beauty and The Black Stallion at youngsters and the grandparents who accompany them. These movies exist for families to go and experience uncomplicated stories with cute little animals braving the horrors of the world.
A Dog’s Way Home is harmless enough but unless you have children or have a special affinity for this genre of movie it may well be, as it was for me, excruciating. While I used to enjoy those movies, I have long since gotten over them. One could argue that I’m poorer for it.
Charles Martin Smith is a wonderful character actor from movies like No Deposit, No Return, and Starman. He has directed such movies as the infamous Trick or Treat and, in its own way, the equally infamous Air Bud. A Dog’s Way Home somehow bridges the two together.
For most of the movie, we follow Bella (voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) played by Shelby the dog, a cute and expressive mixed pit bull. She embarks on a four hundred mile journey to return to her owner Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King). We’ve all heard stories like this before. Stories where a dog, cat, or some other animal travels a great distance to somehow miraculously find it’s way home. These stories have great power to them because for us, I imagine, it challenges our perceptions about the inner lives our pets lead. Maybe there is something more to these animals than just sit, heel, and beg. Add to all of that the basic simple draw of the basic human desire to return home.
Home need not be the place you grew up or even where you were born. After all, Bella was born in the cellar of an abandoned and run down house. Her mother and siblings were taken by animal control. She was raised by a family of cats who also lived in the building. Eventually, Lucas and Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) find her and take her in.
No, home is where we feel “safe from all alarm” as the song goes. It’s why movies such as O’Brother Where Art Thou cast such a lasting spell on the psyche of its audience. Even the story of which it’s based, The Odyssey, is about characters who yearn to be back with their loved ones.
All of this is not to say A Dog’s Way Home is any good. I love Bryce Dallas Howard. She is often the best thing about movies that I don’t generally like. Here though, as the voice of Bella, less is more.
The script, written by W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon, makes Bella a constant insufferable narrator. Cameron, who wrote the book the film is based on, seems to misunderstand the differences between the mediums. In a book, the narration is necessary in order to give us insight into Bella’s fear and emotions.
But dogs are far and away the most expressive of animals. Often times Howard’s voice-over feels insulting to children. She is forced to say such lines as “I was so happy.” My hatred of children is well documented, but even I am forced to argue on their behalf. Surely a child is able to tell when a dog is happy or sad without being told so. If not, then we may have more problems then we are aware of.
Cameron and Michon can’t seem to make up their minds how they want A Dog’s Way Home to be. For much of the movie, it is a harmless saccharine sweet piece of fluff. Even with poor Howard’s inane dialogue. But at times there were moments of manufactured drama that seem out of place.
For example, the home where Lucas and Olivia found Bella. It is a crumbling house amidst a row of condemned houses owned by Gunter (Brian Markinson). Gunter is the greedy landowner whose plans to renovate the street are foiled because of the rumors of cats living in the rubble. The animal control department, the same ones who took Bella’s family, claim there are no cats. Spoiler alert: there are still cats living there.
Gunter is the villain in a movie that clearly doesn’t even need a villain. Much like Bella doesn’t need a voice, A Dog’s Way Home almost goes out of its way to make itself more complicated than it needs to be. Gunter, enraged by Lucas and Olivia’s attempts at forcing him to employ the barest of due diligence, lashes out.
He labels Bella a Pit Bull. Here’s where A Dog’s Way Home gets interesting, sort of. In Denver under the law, “pit bull,” is extremely vague. It’s a catch-all term that encompasses any animal deemed dangerous or a threat to public safety. The whole first act of A Dog’s Way Home is set up for what seems to be an attempt at exploring the pitfalls of breed-specific laws and regulations.
Lucas and his mother Terri (Ashley Judd) make the difficult decision to move Bella out of Denver at a friend’s house. Lucas and Olivia will find a house outside Denver and collect Bella then. But Bella runs away before Lucas can come to get her.
Believe it or not, I am not a monster. As much as I was bored to tears in A Dog’s Way Home and as much as I prayed for a power outage, or for the projector to malfunction, anything to save me from the tedious time at the movies, parts of it worked. Smith from time to time, scales back Howard’s voice over and allows Shelby the dog to just do her thing. At these moments I found myself, much like the little girl in front of me, absorbed by Bella’s plight.
Moments such as when Bella saves a man buried alive from an avalanche only to be found by an interracial gay couple. No, you didn’t misread that sentence and I’m not exaggerating. The order and contents of that sentence are exactly correct. Gavin (Barry Watson) and Taylor (Motell Gyn Foster) have moments with Bella which are simple and effective. We are allowed to just watch without being told what anyone is feeling or thinking.
When Bella leaves to continue her hunt for Lucas, we feel the pang of loss both for the men and for Bella. But nothing prepares us for the hard left turn involving Axel (Edward James Olmos). He’s a homeless Veteran who adopts Bella. He keeps her on a leash and eventually chains her to his body and promptly dies. She is left to die of starvation and dehydration.
Don’t worry, unlike most modern day dog movies, Bella lives. She is discovered by two kids who are about to have their own Stand By Me adventure. Their discovery of Bella is soon overcome by their discovery of Axel.
I haven’t even mentioned the part where Bella basically raises a cougar cub or the subplot about how pets and animals make for good coping therapy for veterans. For a movie that doesn’t have much under the surface, a lot happens above it. Heck, even the legendary Wes Studi shows up at the end. He plays the one character with anything close to resembling common sense and rationality. A welcome reprieve in a movie oftentimes filled with idiots.
Smith tries in vain to tie all of this together into a cohesive story and to some degree he succeeds. Shot by Peter Menzies Jr, the film is pretty to look at and at times borders on more of a nature documentary than a movie. Many scenes involve blatant CGI so as to not put Shelby or the other animals in danger. Although one scene where Bella is concussed by a police car as it skids to a stop jolted me out of my seat.
A Dog’s Way Home is nothing if not sincere in its aim. It just wants to be a little story about a dog trying to get home. I didn’t particularly enjoy it. But I found myself charmed by the little things it did despite my stubborn curmudgeonous demeanor.