Gallantly jumping into the fray of canine cinema, A Dog’s Way Home is the latest iteration of a similar story designed to tug at your emotions while showing you fluffy animals that are too cute to hate. Luckily this isn’t bad enough to feel guilty when the credits roll but it doesn’t do enough or say enough to encourage remembering, even as the film is winding down, you might find yourself powering down. Much like 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose or even Netflix’s Benji, Charles Martin Smith’s narrow-minded film fails to surround its lead character with people worthy of spending the time with.
Telling the story of Bella, a rescue puppy taken in by kind-hearted owner Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), A Dog’s Way Home follows her as she attempts to find her way back to him when she is taken from him due to circumstances she doesn’t understand. Along the way she makes connections with humans and animals alike as she makes the long journey back to Lucas and the community she left behind.
While plagued with incomplete characters and an affinity for avoiding difficult subjects, Bella’s story has a delicate story about how our lives intersect with people we don’t know in interesting ways. Here it is Bella and how she improves people but Bella serves as a cutesy metaphor that oddly works despite the calculating way in which it is approached. The various different tales/vignettes that Smith uses to mask the fact the film has little connective tissue besides Bella’s desire to ‘go home’ are emboldened by this notion of causality but not nearly enough to hold your interest for a prolonged time.
If anything, the different chapters never mesh because the only thing linking them is Bella, not their tone, their humour or even what they are trying to say. The notion that our problems are different but the same comes across through Bella’s generalisation of human sadness but this normalisation of issues such as PTSD, loneliness and abandonment makes them seem almost unimportant, not equally as. These complicated human issues are trivialised by reducing them to passing thoughts.
While Bella and her story point towards recovery, the idea that we can push through our traumas to find fulfilment on the other side is mishandled. Its childlike fantasy makes it seem almost easy. While Bella can see the light at the end of the tunnel, she is still unfortunately, a dog. Despite the authentic feel Smith gives to her journey and the other animals she interacts with, his human characters need work. Flat and one note, A Dog’s Way Home is populated by simple stereotypes instead of people and while Bella can’t tell any different, anyone over the age of 12 can.
If you consider how these people are portrayed as Bella’s view of them it works to some extent but Smith wants more from the people in Bella’s life and therefore demands more from his audience. By the same logic, we need more from Smith, more than glimpses of personality that say just one thing. Strangely the animals Bella encounters feel fuller and ground the film more than any person can. The only downside is some horrifying CGI that does for animals what Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within did for us. Taking you right out of the moment, its hard not thinking that something just doesn’t look right.
While it is easy to see the negative here, a Dog’s Way Home is a light, carefree way to spend an afternoon that has some weighty aspirations, it can’t quite lift itself above the children’s movie identity it has given itself. Despite losing itself due to stories untold and a distinct lack of humanity, Bella is a fun dog and she has a pretty wild ride, one that you might find enjoyable but due to its scope, a little limited.