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Dog gone - 'A Dog's Way Home'

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Full disclosure: I’m a dog person.

As an extension of that, I’m a movie dog person. Anytime I see a dog on screen, there’s a slight-but-significant uptick in my emotional engagement. When there’s a canine presence, I pay closer attention – particularly if there’s any possible chance that something unfortunate might befall said dog. I care more about their well-being than just about any two-legged types.

This brings us to “A Dog’s Way Home.” If you’re going to give me a movie that’s all about a dog wandering through the wilderness in an effort to make her way back to the family that she loves, then I am FOR SURE going to watch the everloving crap out of it. I am going to watch it and I am going to feel all of the feelings.

Is this a great movie? Not really. But for what it is – a sweet, warm-hearted movie aimed directly at dog lovers like myself – it’s pretty good. It has its flaws (there’s one particularly bleak, albeit mercifully brief subplot that is weirdly out of place), but for the most part, it is charming and cute and kind of funny and a little goofy … just like the four-legged friend I have beside me as I write this.

(Note: My dog is named Stella and the movie dog is named Bella, so I was even more predisposed to enjoy my time here.)

Bella (Bryce Dallas Howard, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”) was born beneath a ramshackle ruin of a house in a Denver neighborhood. Circumstances led to the loss of her mother, so she was raised by a mother cat who adopted her following a raid by Animal Control. But when animal shelter volunteers Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King, “Postcards from London”) and Olivia (Alexandra Shipp, “Love, Simon”) discover her in the course of trying to rescue the cats, Bella’s life changes.

Lucas adopts her, bringing her into the home he shares with his mother Terri (Ashley Judd, TV’s “Twin Peaks”). Bella quickly becomes a big part of everyone’s lives – she loves Lucas, but also enjoys spending time with Terri and the other members of Terri’s support group at the veteran’s hospital where Lucas and Olivia both work. She’s got a happy life with a family she loves.

But when Lucas crosses a local developer, Bella winds up in the crossfire. She is reported to the authorities as a dangerous animal, a pit bull mix that is illegal within city limits. If she’s taken in by animal control, the law states that she is to be euthanized. And so, sadly, Lucas sends Bella off to live with Olivia’s relatives in New Mexico while he and his mother look for another place where Bella can be safe. But before they can retrieve her, Bella escapes and starts heading for home.

What follows is an epic journey through the Colorado wilderness, one that see Bella face down the forces of nature while also finding new friends – and new foes – as she makes her way toward a reunion with the family that she loves more than anything else. She falls in with a variety of companions – some human, some animal – but always, she feels the pull toward home.

“A Dog’s Way Home” tugs on your heartstrings in all the ways you’d expect. And while you’re well aware that your emotions are being manipulated, it never feels like it’s being done in a cynical way. It’s a simple story told simply – and that’s OK. Did I cry? Absolutely. More than once? You bet. I got weepy five or six different times and it easily could have been more and I am not the least bit sorry.

There’s no disputing that the production team is ideally suited to make a movie like this one. The screenplay was adapted from the book of the same name by W. Bruce Cameron (who co-wrote the script with Cathryn Michon). Cameron also wrote 2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose,” but this new movie is unrelated – you’ll have to wait for “A Dog’s Journey” (coming later this year) for that sequel. And director Charles Martin Smith’s credits include “Air Bud” and both “Dolphin Tale” offerings. These folks know from family-friendly animal flicks.

Bella encounters other animals (though she’s the only one whose inner monologue we hear); she even spends some time as a sort of surrogate mother to a less-than-ideally-rendered CGI cougar kitten. There are a few fraught moments, but for the most part, we never feel as though our heroine is in any real danger.

(It should be noted that there’s an oddly bleak undercurrent beneath a chunk of the narrative - the aftereffects of service on veterans are a major through-thread, one that occasionally ventures into heavy-handedness.)

The performances are almost beside the point. The human actors all dutifully hit their marks and say their lines and generally do adequate work. Howard is fine as Bella; hers is the voice we hear more than any other and she handles it well. As for the actual Bella, well – she’s delightful. She’s cute and possessed of a surprisingly strong screen presence, engaging in a manner that exceeds the baseline charisma of all canines.

“A Dog’s Way Home” isn’t what you’d call great cinema. But it’s definitely good. And Bella is a good dog because all dogs are good dogs.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 13 January 2019 15:46

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