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Review: ‘A Dog’s Way Home’ is undercut by its childish tone

Bella (Shelby) in Columbia Pictures’ “A DOG’S WAY HOME.” Credit: James Dittiger/Columbia Pictures
Shelby as Bella in the movie “A Dog’s Way Home.”
(James Dittiger / Columbia Pictures)

With the proliferation of dog movies in the past couple of years, it’s no surprise that the astonishing animal journey film would soon resurface. “The Adventures of Milo and Otis” and the “Homeward Bound” were wildly popular family movies in the 1980s and ’90s, and now joining the canon is “A Dog’s Way Home.” It’s based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron, who also wrote the source material for last year’s “A Dog’s Purpose.” The film, directed by Charles Martin Smith from a screenplay by Cathryn Michon and Cameron, uses simple, formulaic storytelling to spin the tale of Bella, a rescued pit bull mix who makes her way home after a two-year walkabout.

“A Dog’s Purpose” was about a beloved dog’s spirit reincarnated into various dogs over the years, living with and loving new owners along the way. Bella’s adventure is reminiscent of that tale. During the journey, she connects with different animals and people who care for her as she cares for them, from a homeless veteran to a magnificent cougar known as Big Kitten.

The story is sweet enough, though totally outlandish. Bella is rescued as a puppy by a kind young man named Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), who hopes the pup will help his mother (Ashley Judd), a veteran suffering from PTSD. But a cruel neighbor sics animal control on Bella — pit bulls are illegal within the city limits of Denver. Bella is sent to friends in New Mexico, but in a desperate attempt to play “go home” and reunite with her person, she makes a run for it and ends up on a wild romp through the Rockies on her way back.

There’s just one element of “A Dog’s Way Home” that yanks the audience right out of the film, and it’s unfortunate because it’s also crucial to the way the story unfolds. Bryce Dallas Howard voices Bella’s inner monologue — a dogologue, if you will. It’s written in such a childish tone, aping the perspective of a dog who understands only some aspects of the human world, that it lowers the discursive level of the whole movie to something quite childlike.

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It’s confusing given the scary and dire situations Bella has to navigate. Howard does her best with the material, but it’s written in such a broad and silly tone it seems like it’s from a children’s program. Even Sally Field and Michael J. Fox were given senses of humor and nuance for the animal characters they voiced in “Homeward Bound.”

As told from Bella’s perspective, everything is emotionally oversimplified, gesturing toward Big Issues painted in big, broad strokes. Veterans are “sad,” a negligent dog-owner “should be alone,” Big Kitten needs a “mother.” It makes for an odd matchup of storytelling style and content that doesn’t quite jell.

Dog lovers will likely warm to the tale of Bella’s quest to reunite with her person despite the odds and circumstances. One would have to be made of stone to not well up during the harrowing climax. But the resolutions are as outlandish as the journey itself. Did no one think to petition the city council to simply change the pit bull law? When the story lags, these are the flaws that pester, and even the cute factor of “A Dog’s Way Home” can’t obscure its narrative weaknesses.

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‘A Dog’s Way Home’

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

Rated: PG for thematic elements, some peril and language

Playing: Starts Jan. 11 in general release

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