Stay with me here. A Dog’s Journey is a sequel to A Dog’s Purpose (2017), both based on novels by W. Bruce Cameron. They’re similar to A Dog’s Way Home (from earlier this year) but aren’t connected to it in any way except that A Dog’s Way Home was based on another, separate novel by W. Bruce Cameron, America’s foremost author working exclusively in the genre of Stories Narrated by Dogs.
I didn’t see A Dog’s Purpose but am informed that it concerns a dog named Bailey (eagerly voiced by Josh Gad) who keeps getting resurrected as new dogs over the course of a man’s life. That man, Ethan, played as an adult by Dennis Quaid, is a grandpa in A Dog’s Journey, living with his wife (Marg Helgenberger), their widowed daughter-in-law Gloria (Betty Gilpin), and her toddler daughter CJ on a farm in Wisconsin. Bailey is currently a huge lovable good boy, some kind of St. Bernard or something. Gloria’s a negligent drunk who takes CJ and heads for Chicago. Next time Bailey is close to death, Ethan asks him to come back this time as a dog who can watch over CJ.
A few years later, CJ is 10 years old (played by Abby Ryder Fortson) when she and her best pal Trent (Ian Chen) adopt puppies from the same litter, one of which is Bailey, now a beagle or something and called Molly. Bailey/Molly remembers his past lives, remembers his job is to take care of CJ, and is thrilled that fate has reunited them (though of course CJ doesn’t know it’s the same dog she played with as a toddler, because Bailey/Molly doesn’t talk, because she is a dog).
A few years later, CJ (Kathryn Prescott) has moved to New York to pursue her dreams when she meets the latest Bailey, a little terrier or something. (Bailey was a big hound dog in between, but only for a couple scenes.) She has a boyfriend who’s OK but who’s no Trent (Henry Lau), who has also ended up in New York and still has feelings for CJ. CJ’s relationship with her mother remains fraught.
For a movie about a dog who keeps dying, A Dog’s Journey (directed by TV veteran Gail Mancuso) is full of sunshine and cuteness, at least from Bailey’s point of view. The human story is full of melodrama — an abusive boyfriend, a car accident, cancer, etc. — but Bailey only understands life in dog terms: families are “packs,” kissing is “licking faces,” and so forth. Fortuitously, that matches the way children see the world, which is how a film with such dark subject matter can be family-appropriate. When Trent helps CJ ditch a bad boyfriend, Bailey says, “Trent got that other guy out of the pack. I’m guessing he finally bit him.” Cute, right?
Well, it wears thin, let me tell you. Do not underestimate just how thin it wears, hearing a medium-grade soap opera plot filtered through a dog’s mentality. (I must also draw attention to Quaid’s comically bad old-age makeup at the end of the film.) This pain is somewhat alleviated, however, by the abundance of adorable dog things that transpire, and by the eternal effectiveness of telling a story where good dogs do things for good people. It works, all right? It’s shameless, but it works.