If you are on the fence about wanting a dog, the Charles Martin Smith directed “A Dog’s Way Home” is likely to push you into a new four-legged friend. Voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard, the adorable pooch, Bella, at the center of this film has all the anthropomorphic qualities one wants in man’s best friend. This dog loves her owner, Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), and travels hundreds of miles over the course of two and a half years to return to him when they are separated. It is an incredibly touching notion. It is also a movie which feels every bit as long as Bella’s journey.
The film, which is written by W. Bruce Cameron & Cathryn Michon (based on Cameron’s book), offers up Bella’s journey, pairing her with various animals and humans, as she gets into and out of scrapes. Some moments are touching, such as Bella’s befriending a baby cougar, but too many feel like needless diversions which exist to extend the film’s length (including her time with Edward James Olmos’s Axel). There are also a number of incredibly questionable moments from the humans in the story which put Bella into her predicament.
It all starts off with Lucas, an animal lover, trying to stop the demolished houses across the street from his home from being carted away so something can be built in their stead. His reticence to see them go comes from the existence of cats under one of the piles of debris. Animal control is unable to remove the felines, but declares the place cat free anyway, and lover of animals that he is, neither Lucas, nor his friend, Olivia (Alexandra Shipp), who does some sort of animal volunteer work, is willing to bring the animals to safety. They would rather just see the pile of junk across the street from Lucas remain. It is an obviously losing battle where other tacks may prove successful.
Sure, their actions are illogical and illegal, but they progress the story, as does Lucas deciding to bring Bella (who lives with the cats across the way) into the house, where Lucas resides with his mother, Terri (Ashley Judd), because she’s an army vet suffering depression and could use the company. Or, that’s the excuse he gives because he really wants a dog and they’re not allowed one in their rental.
The filmmakers’ point is that the bond between dog and human is strong enough to overcome anything. Consequently, it is seen as good that Lucas is breaking his rental agreement, that he doesn’t want to really implement a solution for the cats, that he doesn’t mind picking a fight with animal control over Bella, that Terri doesn’t mind fighting a foolish battle with the developer of the land across the street, that neither care about Lucas risking his job at the VA by bringing Bella there. All these acts that endanger the people, that show a lack of awareness, that are just plain ridiculous, are good because they prove that Lucas and Terri love Bella and the love between animals and humans is all the movie cares about.
The undemanding, younger, audience towards which the film is geared will not care about any of that, of course. They will simply be entranced as Bella treks through the wilderness and various towns and cities as she pursues her quest of returning to Lucas once they are separated.
It is true that the idea is a touching one, that Bella’s devotion to her human family is so strong. But after a while the adults in the audience will wonder whether whatever new predicament Bella finds herself in on the trip is really worth it. Does she really need to fight a pack of wolves more than once? Is getting dognapped essential? Must she really take part in an avalanche? Can’t she just get back to Lucas already so the credits can roll?
Good moments or bad, overly long or incredibly overly long, Howard’s voiceover elevates the film, offering a wide-eyed sort of enthusiasm. It is a peppy narration she gives, and one which fits perfectly into this dog’s eye view of the world. It is not deep, but it doesn’t have to be, it is simply enjoyable.
There will be a large audience of small people out there who will love watching Bella and who might, for a minute, worry that Bella won’t get back to her forever home with Lucas, Terri, and Olivia. They won’t care that some of the CG looks off or that the humans are all foolish and/or evil. They’ll just enjoy the journey. The rest of the audience will see the cuteness of it all, be somewhat disappointed, and then consider calling the local animal shelter to find their new pet.
There are worse things.
photo credit: Sony Pictures