From the writers of A Dog’s Purpose – aka Nietzsche and Me – comes this cuddlier replicant of roughly the same premise. There’s still too much morbidity here for the tottering target market but the real takeaway is as upbeat and saccharine as they come. Think Homeward Bound meets The Fox and the Hound. Dog meets boy, dog gets lost, dog finds boy…or does he? Jeopardy!
Following the footsteps of Josh Gad, Bryce Dallas Howard voices the film’s canine hero, a stray pup raised by cats in the wreckage of derelict old house after her Pitbull mother is captured by Animal Control. Pitbulls are outlawed on the mean streets of Denver, Colorado, and euthanasia is threatened to those caught. Thankfully, it’s the unreasonably attractive Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King and dimples) who finds the pup, names her Bella and takes her HOME with him. Lucas is a dog lover through and through but his choice to adopt is, to some degree, driven by the hope that Bella can help cheer up his depressed, ex-military mum Terri (Ashley Judd). On the side, there’s Olivia (Love Simon’s Alexandra Shipp) too, who may or may not be totally in love with Lucas – aren’t we all? – but can’t quite decide.
Considering just how preposterously joyful the montages that follow this introductory preamble are, there can be no doubt as to where this is all heading. Sure enough, within the first thirty minutes, Bella is locked up and threatened with death. To be fair, given the genocidal tendencies of A Dog’s Purpose, it’s a bonus that she hasn’t already been murdered. In the end, a less brutal suggestion is proposed: Lucas, Terri and Bella will move out of Dodge City to the liberal suburbs and live happily ever after. While her humans seek out a new home, Bella is shipped off to live with a friend of a friend. And here’s the twist. Having been taught to find her way home in an emergency, Bella hears the command ‘go home’ – out of context – and takes it to heart. Thus begins a two and a half year odyssey into the unknown as a dog tries to find her way HOME.
The film is directed by Charles Martin Smith, the man responsible for 2011’s heartfelt Dolphin Tale and its sequel two years later. Much like Dolphin Tale, A Dog’s Way Home is surprisingly effective at rinsing the emotions. No matter how twee you know it to be, how rudimentarily it is plotted and how schmaltzy Mychael Danna is prepared to go with his score, the film works. While the dogs are cute – there’s a cougar cub, kittens and a giggling baby too – the intimacy goes further than instagramable and hits the right cinematic spots. By no means is this intelligent, nor original, but there’s a winning sense of earnestness hidden within for those prepared to find it.
Also like Dolphin Tale, the realisation of the animals here is distributed evenly between live-action and CGI. It’s a little distracting at times – Bella is enlarged twice in freaky growths to show ageing – but mostly successful. Shot across western Canada, the film is as easy on the eye as it is the mind. Too much time is spend in the wilderness, literally and metaphorically, but it does look lovely.
A brief warning for families with sensitive younger viewers. There is a subplot in the film’s central third concerning wolves, which climaxes with an unnecessarily aggressive attack. Blood is shed alongside audience tears.