Engaging critically with Dog Movies can be a challenge for a critic. Who wants to be the crank who scoffs that the heartwarming animal movie is just too contrived and sentimental? But it can be hard to avoid, with the sickly sweet, pandering pabulum of “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Way Home.” Fortunately, “A Dog’s Journey,” the third in a trio of films adapted from W. Bruce Cameron’s novels, offers up an interesting, complex story into which we can sink our teeth. Directed by Emmy-winner Gail Mancuso (“Modern Family”), written by “Purpose” vets Cameron, Maya Forbes, Cathryn Michon and Wallace Wolodarsky, “A Dog’s Journey” has the emotional bite to match its somewhat hokey bark.
Both “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Journey” are metaphysical films that purport that the same dog spirit has been reincarnated again and again into different canine forms over its owner’s lifetime, always trying to make it back home. It’s a rather fantastically philosophical idea for a film that traffics in nostalgic heartland family values cheerleading. But it’s a fantasy dog lovers want to believe. Just look at Barbra Streisand, who has cloned her beloved dog — wouldn’t it be nice to think all dogs don’t actually go to heaven but get reincarnated into our next furry friends?
Bailey, the Saint Bernard from “A Dog’s Purpose,” reappears as a kindly older dog in “Journey,” the beloved pet of Ethan (Dennis Quaid) and Hannah (Marg Helgenberger). Bailey bonds with Ethan and Hannah’s toddler granddaughter, CJ (Emma Volk), while their daughter-in-law Gloria (Betty Gilpin) grieves the death of CJ’s father in a car wreck. A selfish and vain woman, she impulsively leaves the family farm with her daughter, denying the grandparents any chance of seeing her again while tossing off vague accusations about CJ’s father’s life insurance policy.
Losing a beloved dog is a part of pet ownership, and as Ethan says goodbye to his friend Bailey for the final time, he implores the dog to find and protect CJ in his next lives, because she’ll need it. CJ grows up a sad, lonely girl (Abby Ryder Fortson and, later, Kathryn Prescott), but Bailey finds her again and again, as a beagle named Molly, a mastiff named Big Dog and, finally, a Yorkie named Max, who has the greatest influence on CJ’s life, and helps her to believe in the magic of the animal’s spirit.
It’s about halfway through the film when one realizes how much deeper Mancuso and team are going with this dog’s journey. This isn’t all romps in the tall grass and stories of puppy heroism or feats of strength — it’s about family trauma, death, domestic abuse, neglectful parenting, addiction and life-threatening illness. It’s about how dogs can fill the hole in your heart that a person might leave.
The whole schtick of these movies is the treat-motivated, not-quite-getting-it doggie voice-over, performed by Josh Gad, and it lightens the film. But going dark and emotional makes the film work better than the prior two. Because even among all the coincidences and twists of fate Molly and Max enact, what hits home the most is that dogs can offer people unconditional love when they need it most, and that has always been a dog’s purpose.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘A Dog’s Journey’
Rated: PG for thematic content, some peril and rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Starts May 17 in general release