"Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog" is an old-fashioned boy-and-his-dog buddy movie, with an un-Lassie-like twist: It goes for gritty wilderness realism over fantastic feats of canine anthropomorphism.
Not just that, but--despite the pooch's singular billing in the subtitle--it's the boy actually pulling off more of the derring-do than his labrador, when as shipwrecked strandees they journey together through the vast, inhospitable Northwestern wilderness. Think Timmy with a load of merit badges.
Fourteen-year-old Angus McCormick (Jesse Bradford, so good in "King of the Hill" and still remarkable here) is about to make a food run up the Canadian coast in an ocean vessel with his father (Bruce Davison), when a beatific four-legged visitor, Yellow Dog (Dakotah), mysteriously shows up at the ranch. The timing proves more than fortuitous when said dog is shortly washed ashore alongside his young master after a storm separates them from Dad, and these two finally head treacherously inland after days of waiting in vain to be sighted along a remote beach.
Angus' mother (Mimi Rogers) and her rescued husband are occasionally seen back in the civilized world, trying to keep the search parties going. But mostly it's Angus and Yellow Dog as increasingly miserable but determined backwoods survivalists: scraping with the occasional bobcat and such, but even more, just resorting to eating live insects or roasting mice on an open fire to stave off starvation. (You may notice that while the end credits carry the usual notice of no animals harmed during filmmaking, there's no disclaimer about beetles. Sorry, vegans; sorry, anyone who just had dinner.)
The overcast wilderness of "Far From Home" looks as luscious as it is lonely under the terrific technical expertise of writer-director Phillip Borsos ("One Magic Christmas") and cinematographer James Gardner. There's a fascination in the middle stretch over how successfully--for a time--Borsos lets the harrowing woodsy hardships unfold in what seems like real time, with few concessions to the improbable twists children might expect out of a dog-driven adventure tale.
Maybe it could've used a couple of more of those concessions, though. You don't have to be a kid weaned on the talking critters of "The Incredible Journey" to balk at this movie's lack of an exciting third act--or any third act, really. After a strong, albeit leisurely paced, buildup, "Home" heads into the home stretch and ends unexpectedly just shy of the 80-minute point, right when your internal movie clock is telling you the high adventure is really about to kick into gear.
The relative grit is admirable, the locations awe-evoking; the kid is unusually good, and the dog has sex appeal. But even June Allyson might've tilted her head curiously at the sight of Lassie coming home--too soon.
* MPAA rated: PG, for "perilous adventure." Times guidelines: Insect-snacking scenes may not be to everyone's taste; nonetheless, entirely suitable for families.
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'Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog' Katherine McCormick: Mimi Rogers John McCormick: Bruce Davison Angus McCormick: Jesse Bradford John Gale: Tom Bower Yellow Dog: Dakotah A 20th Century Fox presentation. Director-writer Phillip Borsos. Producer Peter O'Brian. Cinematography James Gardner. Editor Sidney Wolinsky. Music John Scott. Production design Mark S. Freeborn. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.