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Centered on the soul of a loyal mutt (amiably voiced by Josh Gad) who has the spiritual equivalent of a season ticket that keeps sending him back to earth after several deaths, A Dog’s Purpose and now its sequel, A Dog’s Journey, serve up a sugar-coated, bastardized form of Buddhism for pet lovers. They’re easy films to sneer and snark at, especially given that both, and the first one especially, trade in a certain kind of wholesome, backlit, wheat-field-swathed image of America (actually shot in Manitoba, Canada).
Even worse, both films are ruthlessly efficient when it comes to jerking tears. Some prideful viewers are likely to feel resentful over how well the pain of losing a beloved animal companion is evoked. The tools are nothing more complicated than a likable cast (that goes for the dog and human actors); competent direction (Gail Mancuso, who oversaw episodes of Modern Family and Gilmore Girls, takes charge of the leash in Journey from Purpose‘s Lasse Halstrom); a surging score by Mark Isham to punch up the plangency; and some corny but hugely relatable plot devices. Ivan Pavlov himself (the original guy who taught dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell) would be impressed.
Don’t tell anyone I said this, but the result is not only pleasingly emotionally purgative, but also has some elements worthy of genuine admiration, despite the fact that the third word in the title is one that should now be entirely banished from the English language for its precious, psychobabble connotations. Aside from that, the screenplay by W. Bruce Cameron (author of the novels on which both Purpose and Journey are based), Cathryn Michon, Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky navigates competently between providing bereavement-based melodrama and butt-sniffing jokes, the twin poles of the Dog’s mini-franchise. Along the way, with a story centered on a female protagonist this time, it quietly boosts a message of resilience and self-belief to young girl audiences, advising them that it’s always a smarter move to love nice boys and dogs rather than abusive jerks and pet haters.
Purpose left off with our canine hero Bailey, at this point living in the body of a Great Pyrenees Bernese Mountain Dog, reunited with both Ethan (Dennis Quaid), who was Bailey’s owner as a child back in the late 1950s, and Hannah (Marg Helgenberger), whom Ethan used to date when they were teens. As Journey begins, sometime in the late 1980s/early 1990s, two new members of the family have moved into the Norman Rockwell-style clapboard farmhouse Ethan’s inherited: Hannah’s daughter-in-law Gloria (Betty Gilpin, from GLOW) and her toddler Clarity (Emma Volk), also known as C.J.
Bailey is, as per usual, mostly focused on bacon falling on the floor in this period. He doesn’t truly understand what’s going on when Gloria — grieving over the off-camera death of C.J.’s father, who was Hannah’s son, and also a budding alcoholic and unconfident mother who feels jealous of Hannah and Ethan’s bond with her daughter — decides to up and leave with C.J., citing unfounded suspicions that they’re after C.J.’s inheritance money. The dog misses his small, pork-product-dispensing companion, but gets on with life in his phlegmatic, doggy way. When the time comes for Ethan to have the now-aged Bailey put to sleep permanently (arguably the film’s most sob-inducing scene), he asks Bailey to keep an eye over C.J. in his future lives.
Conveniently, the universe contrives to help him do just that, bringing Bailey back first as a female Beaglier (beagle/King Charles spaniel cross) named Molly that ends up being adopted by C.J. (Abby Ryder Fortson), now 11 years old and fending for herself as best she can while Gloria works through a variety of unsuitable men, many glasses of chardonnay and her few remaining hopes of ever having a solo singing career.
The script, Mancuso and the cast, especially the deeply watchable Gilpin and engaging up-and-comer Kathryn Prescott (who takes over as C.J. once she’s past puberty) effectively limn the layered complexities of this dysfunctional single-mom/lone girl-child menage, which scars C.J. in ways that only a loving dog can compensate for. Gloria fat shames her, cuts her off from her grandparents and neglects her horribly, which leads to her dating a skeevy guy named Shane (Jake Manley) — who might as well have a T-shirt with “Potential Stalker” blazoned across it — instead of her sweet childhood friend Trent (first Ian Chen, then later on Canadian K-pop star Henry Lau), who is always there for her. The core romantic advice from the Dog’s films seems to be “never date anyone you haven’t known since childhood.”
It takes a few reincarnations for Bailey before his soul (now encased by a Yorkshire terrier), C.J. and Trent to all end up in New York City (playing itself with swagger), where the plot veers for a while into a young-people-face-cancer story, in the manner of The Fault in Our Stars and the like. This extra layer of morbidity adds an interesting spin on the two films’ ongoing preoccupation with death, raising the stakes by having not just the loss of a beloved pet in the offing, but also the loss of a beloved friend. Tellingly, both potential losses are seen as equally devastating.
Nevertheless, it’s best not to think too much about the moral logic of Journey and where it stands on the respective value of humans versus other mammals and animals. Or about why Bailey keeps getting reborn and coming back to these particular people and not, say, Joe (Conrad Coates), the nice man who runs a gas station near Pittsburgh, with whom Bailey lives when he comes back for a while as an African Boerboel named Big Dog. After all, Joe treats Big Dog just as well as any of the other dog owners and lives, as the inner voice of Bailey exclaims happily, in a “house made of snacks.”
Distribution: Universal Pictures
Production: An Amblin Entertainment, Reliance Entertainment presentation in association with Walden Media, Alibaba Pictures of a Pariah production
Cast: Kathryn Prescott, Abby Ryder Fortson, Emma Volk, Josh Gad, Betty Gilpin, Marg Helgenberger, Henry Lau, Dennis Quaid, Ian Chen, Jake Manley, Daniela Barbosa, Conrad Coates
Director: Gail Mancuso
Screenwriters: W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon, Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky, based on the novel by W. Bruce Cameron
Producer: Gavin Polone
Executive producers: Seth William Meier, Lasse Hallstrom, Luyuan Fan, Wei Zhang
Director of photography: Rogier Stoffers
Production designer: Eric Fraser
Costume designer: Pattie Henderson
Editor: Robert Komatsu
Music: Mark Isham
Casting: John Papsidera
Rating PG; 108 minutes
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