At its best, A Dog’s Way Home is a cutesy canine flick, filled with enough tail wagging, heartstring pulling, and awww-inducing action to satisfy dog lovers of all ages. At its worst, the movie is a tonal nightmare, rapidly shifting from overly sappy montages to scenes way too dark for young kids, the film’s clear audience. Before you hit theaters, consider that your time may be better spent rewatching Marley and Me, or doing literally anything else.
A Dog’s Way Home opens on young Bella, a pitbull mutt who lives in a shelter of rubble, co-habited by her family and a group of feral cats. After an evil animal control officer captures Bella’s family, Mother Cat raises the pup as her own, introducing a theme echoed throughout the film: love transcends all boundaries, whether those be breed, race (the two are synonymous here), or species. Soon, righteous med students Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) and Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) rescue Bella, and Lucas brings her home in an attempt to soothe his veteran mother’s (Ashley Judd) depression. The same cartoonish antagonist, the animal control officer, reappears, hellbent on impounding Bella, as Denver law shockingly renders pitbulls illegal. To save his dog, Lucas sends Bella to live outside city limits with Olivia’s aunt and uncle. But Bella feels the “invisible tug of a leash” — which, spoiler alert, is made of love — pulling her back home.
What follows is her Homeward Bound-style journey traversing 400 miles of Colorado wilderness. Bryce Dallas Howard lends a sprightly, emotive voice to the canine star, and early montages of Lucas raising the pup are delightful to watch. But a dog’s thoughts and feelings just aren’t complex enough to captivate viewers for the film’s runtime, especially during longer stretches of Bella’s journey. We hear the same sentiments, uttered with school grade simplicity, over and over: “I missed Lucas” or “It was time to go home.”
Along the way, Bella takes an orphaned cougar cub under her wing, carrying on Mother Cat’s legacy of interspecies mock-adoption. Their scenes together are backed by nostalgia-inducing 2000s hit songs, culminating in montages so overly sweet you might throw up. As an added bonus, the cougar cub is animated in what some are calling the worst CGI of the year. In contrast with the pair’s mushy sequences, some moments are downright horrifying. The PG-rated film might send kids screaming when two boys discover a starving Bella tied to a homeless veteran’s rotting corpse.
Looking beyond Bella’s trite narration, the human dialogue leaves much to be desired. A stilted and unconvincing Ashley Judd delivers many of the silliest lines. One particularly ridiculous scene sees her head to head with landlord Günter (Brian Markinson) over Lucas’s attempts to save the cats inhabiting his land. Günter threatens, “This means war,” to which the veteran replies with overacted valor, “War? What do you know about war?” In fact, her entire support group of veterans is a caricature, and their intended poignant moments feel more like cheap ploys to tug on viewers’ heartstrings, devoid of emotional depth.
Despite the film’s faults, Shelby the dog shines in her breakout role, and her expert canine acting is one of the only redeeming factors. The movie does broadcast a nice message of dog breed equality, shining a positive light on pit bulls, which encourages young kids to be accepting of all animals and people alike. But perhaps this goal did not necessitate a deteriorating corpse as part of the narrative. As much as I wanted to enjoy A Dog’s Way Home — I was a childhood fan of W. Bruce Cameron’s novels — I recommend skipping out on this family flick and saving yourself 14 hours in dog time.