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‘A Dog’s Journey’ formulaic, but still worth taking

May 22, 2019
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Full disclosure: I love dogs. Love love LOVE dogs. I love the teeny tiny puppers and the big thick doggos and all the adorable floofs out there.

Being the font of canine adoration that I am, it’s clear that I fit squarely into the target demographic of “A Dog’s Journey,” the sequel to 2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose.” It’s the story of one good boy’s spirit as he lives multiple lives, all of them focused on doing right by the one he is sworn to watch over – a duty whose subject changes in this sequel.

(It’s worth noting that while there’s no in-movie connection between these two movies and “A Dog’s Way Home” from earlier this year, all three films are based on novels by the writer W. Bruce Cameron, so don’t be shocked by tonal or thematic similarities.)

It’s a chance to follow one dog’s devoted spirit seek endlessly to track down the person that they are meant to protect, no matter what. It isn’t always easy, but a good dog will do whatever it takes. And since they’re ALL good dogs, well … they’re going to make it happen.

Bailey (Josh Gad, “Murder on the Orient Express”) is a dog, one whose spirit has reincarnated time and time again in an effort to be with his boy Ethan (Dennis Quaid, “The Intruder”), now a grown man living on a farm in Michigan with his wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger, “Almost Friends”). Ethan’s the only one who understands that the soul of his Bailey is the same as the Bailey from his youth – he’s given up trying to convince anyone.

Ethan and Hannah are hosting Hannah’s daughter-in-law Gloria (Betty Gilpin, “Isn’t It Romantic”), who has lived with them since the death of David – her husband and Hannah’s son – in a car accident. Gloria and her daughter CJ are living on the farm, but Gloria is struggling with grief and a desire to make a career as a singer. Eventually, in a rage, she leaves the farm behind and cuts CJ off from her grandparents.

It’s not long before old Bailey starts to feel the weight of his years; it’s time for him to say goodbye. Ethan, even as he mourns the impending loss of his lifelong friend, gives Bailey a new purpose – to look after CJ.

And that’s what he does. He first comes back as Molly, a puppy that young CJ (Abby Ryder Fortson, “Ant-Man and the Wasp”) sneaks into her life despite the objections of her absentee (and possibly alcoholic) mother. CJ’s best friend Trent (Ian Chen, TV’s “Fresh Off the Boat”) gets a pup from the same litter and the quartet grows up together.

Older CJ (Kathryn Prescott, “Polaroid”) has a dream of making it as a singer-songwriter but finds herself getting mixed up with some less than stellar company, much to the chagrin of Trent (Henry Lau, TV’s “Oh My Venus”). An incident leads to community service – where Molly learns to scent cancer cells as part of an experiment. The fallout from said incident leads to an accident – one with devastating consequences.

More incarnations follow – a mastiff named Big Dog, a Yorkshire terrier named Max – all of whom do their part to help guide CJ, allowing her to find her way to the life that she was really seeking the whole time.

Yeah – I cried a bunch during this movie. Lumps in throats, hitching sobs – the whole package. There are few things in the world that I find more emotionally resonant than the relationship between people and dogs, so obviously, this one was going to push my buttons. And I’ll freely admit that said button-pushing wasn’t done particularly skillfully or subtly. It all felt very deliberate and calculated – but no less effective because of that.

Dogs were doing dog things and being suitably adorable. While “A Dog’s Journey” doesn’t treat its human characters quite as disposably as its predecessor – largely because we really had CJ as our primary focus – it still doesn’t seem that concerned with them. They’re there … and that’s about it, for the most part. Which is totally OK, because let’s be real – we’re here for the dogs.

Gad is fine as Bailey’s inner voice – he’s got a wonderful gift for vocal expression that serves him well. He dutifully makes the jokes that need to be made while also finding occasional moments of genuine pathos that emotionally anchor the story. The humans are fine. Fortson and Prescott do good work as tween and grown-up CJ, respectively. Ditto Chen and Lau as various Trents. Gilpin is way over the top as Gloria, to the point of occasionally being distracting. And Quaid and Helgenberger are good (though it took me a second to shake Quaid’s vibe from “The Intruder”).

But really, it’s about the dogs. “A Dog’s Journey” exists solely to allow moviegoers to feel feelings about dogs for 108 minutes. It is saccharine and unrelentingly sentimental, gleefully pushing emotional buttons. Yet despite knowing that, even the most cynical among us will struggle not to succumb to at least a few tears. It’s not a great movie, but it sure is an effective one.

[2.5 out of 5]

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