A Dog’s Way Home is fine. It’s nothing special, nothing awful, and not a particularly noteworthy thing in anyone’s filmography one way or another. It’s not the sort of thing I’d usually bother with a full review of because it feels like it’s not really for “my audience” and also I kind of hate writing “just fine” reviews because a lukewarm tone is actually more difficult to convey textually than definitively “good” or “bad.” This is a perfectly serviceable dog movie. It’s appeal is entirely based on how much you like dog movies in general and how demanding you are that movies have more aesthetic flourish than your average CBS network procedural. Otherwise A Dog’s Way Home is not very interesting.
But the moment surrounding it is kind of interesting. A Dog’s Way Home turned into kind of a meme over the last few months because it’s trailer seemed to be in front of everything despite the fact that this is a lower-budget movie that feels like a pseudo-sequel to A Dog’s Purpose but with the Highlander-esque reincarnation plot switched out for a more conventional Homeward Bound/Incredible Journey story. Said trailer was extremely treacly, seemingly advertising a series of eye-rollingly cliched plot points set to the most generic inspirational pop music track possible. To top it all off, it was edited in a way suggesting that it revealed all the highlights of the film, including the ending!
It seems like everyone has been joking about “the super-sappy dog movie that gives away the ending” for months now. Well, “everyone” if the majority of your social engagement is quasi-professional entertainment journalist social media spaces as opposed to the real world. But now that it’s out in theaters, it turns out the trailers and whole marketing campaign were lying.
They’re not lying in the sense of there being some kind of huge genre-bending twist like it’s actually a werewolf movie or there’s an alien invasion or something. And the trailer still “gave away the ending” though there was never a chance in hell that a movie like this coming out in January was aiming to gut-punch filmgoers with a surprise Old Yeller ending out of the blue. It’s a lost dog movie that more or less wraps up the way most lost dog movies do — happily.
But to an almost absurd degree the “highlight reel” version of the film people think they’ve seen was conjured out of whole cloth, simultaneously leaving out the film’s actual plot and premise and most of what’s noteworthy about it. This isn’t to suggest that there’s something groundbreaking going on, but it’s kind of strange to basically set out and make a family-friendly English remake of White God and then … not tell anyone.
The premise here is that the dog in question is technically a “pit bull mix.” A Dog’s Way Home isn’t simply a singular lost dog story but a politically tinged narrative that wants to update the dog’s eye view of human good and evil narrative for a 21st Century moral framework while also making an explicit argument against a real-world issue. In this case, it’s an argument against prejudice towards pit bulls as manifested by citywide bans and breed-specific euthanization, which takes place in Denver where the film begins.
That’s pretty messed up, isn’t it? Pit bulls don’t decide to be like people think they are. People do that to them. It’s not like there’s some doggy MMA gym where they go in saying, “Hey, I need to get all swole and bitey!” The movie calls it “racism but for dogs,” and maybe that’s kind of heavy-handed phrasing, but it’s also not inaccurate.
The city government wants to kill off all the pit bulls apparently, and the dog’s owner is this animal rights guy trying to stop a real estate builder from exterminating the colony of feral cats who actually raised the dog. (Her name is Bella and she speaks with a voiceover by Bryce Dallas Howard.) The evil builder guy uses the corrupt local animal laws to target the dog and force the good guys to move.
Through a series of ensuing plot complications, Bella ends up out in the world far from home on her own at first by choice, then by necessity. She’s trying to find her way back and in the process doing what dogs do in ever movie like this: Encountering a wide spectrum of good and bad people, places, and situations while commenting on them with amusingly naive yet profound truisms about life and humanity.
But this time it’s with a “new for the 2020s” paint job and polish. Bella’s walking tour of The Human Experience includes homelessness and military veteran PTSD as Scary Human Problems, handsome upscale gay male couples as beacons of idealized domestic safety, rugged backwoods guys and selfie-shooting trophy hunters as animal-abusing villains, and a recurring theme emphasizing the moral righteousness of single motherhood and adoption both in humans and animals. Bella was raised by cats and becomes a surrogate mother to an orphaned cougar cub.
None of this would actually make A Dog’s Way Home a good movie in itself. It’s still overly reliant on coincidence and plot contrivance to move the actual story from place to place. But as a kind of document of present history, I did find it somewhat fascinating to take note of these particular details in a film whose tone is aimed SQUARELY at the American middlebrow suburban center and realize: “THIS is where the needle apparently is now.”
Beyond that, A Dog’s Way Home is mostly notable for how aggressively it shifts from “Movies like this usually put the animals in a bit more immediate danger” to “OH! THERE IT IS!” in Act 3 where Bella’s suffering turns into an almost comically escalating series of horrible endurance tests. Nearly dying of dehydration because a person holding her chain has DROPPED DEAD just out of reach of water is not the worst thing that will happen before it’s over.