A Silly Dog Movie To The Start Of A Silly Year
By Jordan Bosch
A Dog’s Way Home is a really stupid movie, but I was sold from the trailer.
It’s so aggressively saccharine and glaringly manipulative that it looked like just the right kind of hilarious bad movie. So I went and saw it and was slightly disappointed it wasn’t quite as funny as I hoped. But it’s also way more insane and bizarre than even the trailer indicated making it still a fairly enjoyable experience.
A pup (whose thoughts are voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) living under a demolished house is found and adopted by a med student Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) who names her Bella. But after getting in trouble a couple times due to an extremely odd Denver law, Bella is relocated a few states away, where she proceeds to escape and attempt the long journey home, befriending a few people and nurturing a baby cougar along the way.
A Dog’s Way Home is really astoundingly badly written. It’s most obvious in the dogs’ intentionally cutesy dialogue, but also that of the human characters and the story. For example, the phrase “racism, but for dogs” is used unironically in this movie, and to that end everything to do with the city banning pit bulls is absurd. At times it really does try to go for a racism allegory when it’s not incorporating plot points purely for vacuous inspirational nonsense, such as focusing a subplot on how Bella brings comfort to a handicapped support group run by Lucas’ mom. And there’s a strange fixation on the military through this movie, from everyone at the support group having served in some capacity to even a homeless Vietnam vet playing a major part late in the film.
The stages of Bella’s journey haven’t much consistency, and there are some truly outrageous plot contrivances; like a random avalanche or a group of would-be rescuers being scared away embarrassingly easily seconds before calling Lucas. At one point circumstances lead to Bella being chained to a corpse, and nonetheless her dialogue maintains its naive, innocent demeanour, and Howard’s kindergarten teacher voice. It’s bafflingly tone-deaf! I’m not entirely convinced this movie wasn’t written by a third grader. It’s at least easier to digest than the thought someone actually got paid for this script.
But of course the movie only exists because of the cuteness factor, and it exploits that sentimentality shamelessly. This pandering is so transparent and silly it can’t help but be really funny. Between the rampant weirdness in the script and the blatantly manipulative way the film is shot and scored (pausing about every fifteen minutes for a pop song to try and garner the feelings the movie can’t sustain itself), I chuckled way more in this family-friendly drama than at any of the comedies I saw in 2018. You can practically see the treat or chew toy being held just off camera to direct the dogs’ attention. And even with this, there are a number of moments when Bella’s lines don’t actually match what the dog is doing or where she’s looking. But at least Bella is a real dog, while her cougar friend is such on obvious CG creation it’s a little jarring seeing the two on screen together. This poor compositing is probably best exemplified by a scene on a frozen pond where the two are moving in very different measures. Most of the other animals that aren’t domestic pets are CG as well.
The cast play this film with the conviction of a Hallmark movie, from Ashley Judd doing the bare minimum to Jonah Hauer-King giving such a consistently bland performance it’s actually kind of impressive. Alexandra Shipp plays Lucas’ girlfriend; and later Edward James Olmos and even Wes Studi show up in this movie, injecting even for just brief moments some great acting into it.
A Dog’s Way Home is so brazenly calculating, and unabashedly dumb, with as little effort as possible in its script and story, you can’t help but be entertained by its sheer incompetence and shallowness. And if you think that’s just me being cynical or closed off, I was in the right place for this movie to be affecting. I grew up with two dogs, the older of which died just three months ago. Incidentally I have a brother also named Lukas who’s a lifelong dog lover, and both our pets were lost for brief periods. What I’m saying is this movie had every opportunity to be emotionally resonant for me personally, but its’ execution was so haphazard I couldn’t take an ounce of it seriously enough to connect. The moments that want to be tearjerkers are, due to their tonal dissonance and desperation, either unintentionally funny or confusing.
This is a bad movie, and if you want to feel something from a story like this, watch Alpha (the most surprisingly good movie from last year), or of course the charming classic from my childhood, Homeward Bound. But this is also a bad movie you can have a good time at, provided you go with a small group and aren’t watching with too many people who would take it seriously.
Movie and Arts Critic Jordan Bosch is a former columnist with the now defunct Moose Jaw Times-Herald. He watches and reviews dozens of films each year.