A Dog’s Way Home features not only the dog of its title but dozens of cats, wolves, elk, cougars and even a whole gang of lost dogs roaming in packs around the streets of Colorado. Many of these animal scenes get a strong CGI assist. But how else are you going to portray a cute little dog rolling around with a baby cougar on an enormous frozen lake? You do what you have to do.
Taking a cue from the classic Disney live-action animal adventure films of the ’70s, A Dog’s Way Home would have all the makings of a future family favorite were it not for a few incredibly grim moments dropped into the narrative from out of nowhere. The film deals pretty heavily and almost comically clumsily with some serious thematic material that goes places younger kids will barely be able to comprehend, much less enjoy. Abuse, abandonment and death narratives are embedded so deeply into the fabric of the film that at times I even forgot the whole point of the story was that the dog was trying to, you know, go home.
The opening act offers no real hints that this will be the case, either, so it’s all the more unsettling when these dark asides pop up through the film. They’re tempered every step of the way, but for every Raising Arizona set piece of animals racing through a supermarket, there’s a homeless veteran lying down to die beside a riverbed. The episodic nature of the plotting helps to sustain what is otherwise just two hours of a dog running around in the wilderness and stealing rotisserie chickens from grocery stores, but the random ways in which the story branches off from its main trajectory feel almost cruel at times. The film certainly doesn’t flinch at how terrifying a pack of wolves might be in the wild, nor does it shy away from the nearly unbearable air of loneliness and despair hanging over the entire story.
On the other hand, hey, that’s a really cute dog! I love watching really cute dogs! Not only that, but I love stories about greedy land developers and evil dogcatchers and all that sort of nonsense. But what I don’t love, and something this movie just can’t resist, unfortunately, is having that really cute dog’s every thought narrated by a human voice. Bryce Dallas Howard is fine and never quite annoying as the voice of our dog Bella, but the sticking point is that she only really serves to restate, through the dog’s point of view, information we already know. Whether the film gives us human characters to voice exposition or sweeping vistas to convey a sense of space and emotional resonance, leave it to the voice-over to hammer it home in case we missed it the first time. But it’s fine. None of that matters. A Dog’s Way Home is mostly good at what it’s trying to do. As Bella says toward the end of the film, “I don’t quite understand what just happened, but it sure was a lot of fun.”