“A Dog’s Way Home” plays less like a movie than it does a series of stitched together YouTube videos, as if an aspiring editor with a lot of time on their hands took to the internet, cut together the most endearing stock footage of dogs they could find and somehow convinced Bryce Dallas Howard (“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”) to do a voiceover. In that light, it sounds almost pleasant, right? The problem, of course, is that “A Dog’s Way Home” isn’t a YouTube video. It’s a movie, which comes with certain expectations. Frankly, man’s best friend deserves better than a YouTube video with high production values.
The quasi-spinoff of 2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose”— the two films are both based on novels by W. Bruce Cameron, and “A Dog’s Way Home” certainly didn’t take any measures to distance itself from the earlier movie despite having no connection to it — “A Dog’s Way Home” follows a pitbull mix named Bella who finds herself separated from her owner and sets off on a 400-mile trek to reunite with him. On her journey, she runs across all manner of CGI creatures, including a cougar kitten that she raises as her own and a pack of wolves that are eventually dispatched in a fight scene that, strangely enough, recalls “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” with its impenetrable zooms and pans.
The best moments of “A Dog’s Way Home” deal with Bella acting as a therapy animal in a way that could have made for an entertaining short film. Based on how often that motif recurs, it’s likely supposed to form some sort of backbone for the movie, but neither Bella nor the humans she interacts with and helps are developed enough for any of it to make sense and say something beyond “dogs are awesome.” I know dogs are awesome. You know dogs are awesome. We don’t need a 102 movie to tell us so.
Much more memorable, unfortunately, are moments where “A Dog’s Way Home” descends into wanton misery. In what may end up the most nihilistic scene of any movie this year, Bella finds herself chained to the corpse of a PTSD-stricken homeless veteran for days with a river mere inches out of reach, a vision of hell so appallingly dark that even Dante may have passed on it in favor of something a little more lighthearted. I’m all for movies speaking to kids on their level and not condescending to them, but there’s a difference between treating your young audience with a modicum of respect and beating them over the head with hopelessness and despondency in a movie about a talking dog.
More entertaining still were the reactions of the people around me. The young boy in front of me grew so bored that, as interminable second act wore on, he got up and started introducing himself to other people in the theater. His name was Murphy, and he showed me his new light-up sneakers. They were very cool. The woman I shared an armrest with, on the other hand, seemed to be having a religious experience, complete with convulsions and speaking in tongues at the screen as if the characters could actually hear her.
Together, Murphy and this woman had all the personality “A Dog’s Way Home” lacks. It’s not terrible — though Howard’s stilted voice over does nothing to help — it’s just the most generic possible dog movie. Instead of making your way to the theater and dropping dollars on this, might I recommend last year’s beautiful prehistoric “boy and his dog” story, “Alpha,” instead? Or how about ABC’s short-lived but excellent talking dog series, “Downward Dog?” Or hell, how about staying home and watching cute or inspiring videos of dogs on YouTube. You’ll certainly get nothing more out of “A Dog’s Way Home.”