If you think you would enjoy an uncomplicated, PG-rated movie about a dog traveling 400 miles to be reunited with her humans, there’s an excellent chance you will enjoy A Dog’s Way Home, which is exactly that and does exactly what you’d expect it to do (albeit with more CGI cats).
Based on W. Bruce Cameron’s novel and directed by Air Bud and Dolphin Tale auteur Charles Martin Smith, this Incredible Journey/Homeward Bound retread follows an adorable pit bull mix named Bella (her thoughts narrated by Bryce Dallas Howard) who’s adopted as a feral puppy by an adorable medical student named Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) and his depressed veteran mom, Terri (Ashley Judd). They live in Denver, though, where — and this is true — pit bulls are illegal. (“It’s basically racism for dogs,” says Lucas’ girlfriend.) The only solution: send Bella to live with friends in Farmington, N.M. I guess Lucas and Terri don’t know anyone who lives, say, just outside of Denver.
The plot is harebrained, with a lot of extraneous human-related complications, including a heartless property owner named Gunther (not listed on IMDb; nice work, Columbia Pictures) with a vendetta against Lucas because he tried to stop him from developing his land while there were still feral cats living on it. But once Bella runs away from Farmington and we get to the dog’s-eye-view of a perilous journey home, it’s qualify comfort food. (Bella is SUCH A GOOD GIRL! YES SHE IS!) She has mini-adventures with other dogs, cougars, a well-meaning gay couple, a depressed homeless man, and more. Military veterans are a recurring motif throughout the movie, for no apparent reason other than to boost its bona fides as a story for Decent, Upstanding people. (What’s more American than dogs and veterans?)
The feral cats and the cougars are mostly CGI, which is only a problem insofar as they look fake next to a real dog. I know cats are hard to train, but come on. In my day, if you couldn’t train an animal to do something, you either filmed around it or you used a hilariously unconvincing puppet.
Like many wholesome movies about animals, this one has its morbid aspects: Bella’s mother is ripped away from her in the opening minutes; a dog is temporarily chained to a corpse; etc. But the target audience can rest assured there are no dog deaths, and the inevitable reunion is suitably tearjerking and slobbery. By the time we get to the veterans at the VA hospital doing an “I am Spartacus” routine to keep Bella from being confiscated by the mean animal-control officer, it won’t matter how contrived it all seems. Not when she’s SUCH A GOOD GIRL!