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"A DOG'S WAY HOME"
(2019) (Jonah Hauer-King, Ashley Judd) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A lost dog travels hundreds of miles to get back to her owner.
PLOT:
Lucas (JONAH HAUER-KING) is a young man who lives in Denver with his Army veteran mom, Terri (ASHLEY JUDD), and works in the VA hospital that she frequents. He does so alongside Olivia (ALEXANDRA SHIPP) who also helps him with animal rescue work, such as directly across the street from him where a bunch of feral cats and dogs live beneath a dilapidated building.

The owner of that property, Gunter (BRIAN MARKINSON), isn't pleased that their efforts have slowed down his demolition work, and thus he's called on animal control officer Chuck (JOHN CASSINI) to remove the animals. But not all are removed, including a mixed breed pit bull puppy that rushes out to meet Lucas and claims him as her human. He names her Bella (who only we hear voiced by BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD) and the two quickly become inseparable.

But when Chuck spots the dog -- that's illegal in Denver -- he confiscates the pooch. Lucas manages to get her back after paying a fine, but is told if she's found off their property again, the dog will be euthanized. Accordingly, he arranges with Olivia to have Bella live with her relatives -- four hundred miles away in New Mexico -- until he and his mom can find a place outside of the city limits where the dog will be safe. But once Bella is there, her desire to return home and be with Lucas kicks in and she begins the long and arduous trek.

During that walk that ends up taking two and a half years, she has run-ins and encounters with both other animals and humans alike, including a pack of wolves that want to hunt her and a cougar cub that she adopts along the way. Gavin (BARRY WATSON) and Taylor (MOTELL FOSTER) end up briefly taking in Bella and another dog, with Bella later running into homeless veteran Axel (EDWARD JAMES OLMOS) who claims her as his and won't let her go. Yet, despite those new friendships with other animals and having new owners, Bella simply wants to go home and be with her human, Lucas.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Every once in a while you'll hear stories on the news about people and their pets that have accidentally been separated. Usually, that's due to dogs or cats ending up as stowaways of sorts -- in someone's car, a transport vehicle, or being put on the wrong airplane -- and being discovered hundreds and sometimes thousands of mile away from home.

Less frequently, there are stories of such animals somehow -- miraculously and seemingly against all odds -- making their way back home to their owner after walking such great distances on their own. I'll admit that I'm surprised when our cat somehow knows we're within a half mile or so of our house after a three-hour car ride. But that could be outside scents, our body movements and maybe nearby magnetic fields that signal we're just about home.

That said, I can't suppress the skeptic in me when I hear such tales of non-winged animals traversing hundreds or thousands of miles in finding their way home, simply because them doing so defies logic, science, physical endurance and so on. But that doesn't mean I can't evoke some suspension of disbelief when such a journey arrives in the form of a book or movie.

All of which brings us around to "A Dog's Way Home," a nearly 100-minute offering based on W. Bruce Cameron's 2017 novel of the same name. Emotionally involving at times, the film is also super episodic, sometimes dramatically clunky, and features some CGI generated animals that might have seemed state of the art ten or fifteen years ago...but not now.

But its most notable feature -- that will likely divide viewers into the "That's so cute" vs. "I wish the dog would shut up" -- is giving our canine protagonist a voice. No, this isn't a talking animal movie per se (meaning we don't see lip movement and the pooch hasn't been fully anthropomorphized) and Bella the dog is the only animal whose inner, animal-based thoughts are heard.

Instead, Bryce Dallas Howard has apparently been instructed by director Charles Martin Smith -- who works from a screenplay by Cameron & Cathryn Michon -- to verbalize the simpler, child-like thoughts that might be going through a dog's head at any moment in any particular situation. I suppose the intention is to make this tale more accessible to younger kids who might not otherwise always understand or follow what's happening (much like what occurred with Josh Gad doing something similar in voicing the dog's repeatedly reincarnated soul in "A Dog's Purpose" -- also based on a novel by Cameron). I have to say, though, that it's sometimes annoying and more often than not pretty much unnecessary. After all, kids certainly followed along while watching the most non-verbal E.T. and WALL-E in their respective films and thus the same probably would have worked here.

That said, the story is clearly easy to follow, verbal commentary or not. Our little hero ends up being discovered while two VA hospital workers -- Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) and Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) -- are feeding some feral cats beneath a dilapidated building that's about to be torn down in the city limits of Denver.

The owner (Brian Markinson) of said property isn't happy with such critters or such efforts to save them, and thus calls on an animal control officer (John Cassini) to round them up. He doesn't initially spot Bella, but when he later does, he informs Lucas -- who lives with his PTSD suffering, Army veteran mom (Ashley Judd) -- that such mixed breed pit bulls are illegal and if the dog is caught again on public property, it will be euthanized.

So, the dog is sent off to live with some of Olivia's relatives in New Mexico, but heeding her master's earlier "be safe" instruction of "go home," the dog jumps the backyard fence and begins her quest. During her four-hundred mile walk/run home, she encounters animals both good and bad, including hungry wolves (natch, bad) and a hungry mountain lion cub (good as a surrogate child, traveling companion and, much later, savior). There are also humans -- including a couple (Barry Watson and Motell Foster) and a homeless vet (Edward James Olmos) who briefly become the pooch's owner.

But we know the dog will keep on keeping on, only to eventually run afoul of the animal control officer near the end of the third act. Yes, it's about as predictable as they come, and while really young viewers likely won't notice or mind, older kids and especially adults will easily and fully see the entire path maybe even before the pooch takes her first step.

And some of that will include the episodic nature of the story -- something of a given considering the plot outline -- but it would have been nice had the filmmaker managed to make it all flow together better. I similarly wished the CGI was of "Jungle Book" quality. Alas, while the cougar (both in cub and adult mode) would have been impressive years back, it sticks out like a sore thumb here, especially when combined with and compared to what I'm assuming was the real dog used for such interspecies animal interactions.

So, we're left with something of a mixed bag where what works (the emotional moments and, yes, the cute pup) ends up being negated by what doesn't, or at least operates below acceptable levels. As a result, "A Dog's Way Home" ends up with a 5 out of 10 rating.




Reviewed January 9, 2019 / Posted January 11, 2019


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