'A Dog's Way Home': Film Review

Bound to spark a major increase in traffic at dog shelters.

A lovable pooch embarks on a perilous journey to be reunited with her owner in this family film based on the best-selling novel by W. Bruce Cameron, author of 'A Dog's Purpose.'

Much like Mitch Albom has seemingly cornered the market on heaven, author W. Bruce Cameron has marked his territory with uplifting dog stories. A Dog's Way Home, the latest effort based on one of his books, lacks the thematic depth of its predecessor A Dog's Purpose and is more strictly geared toward children. But dog lovers of all ages will warm up to its adventure tale about a plucky pooch who embarks on a 400-mile journey to get back home to his beloved owner. The film pretty much packs every canine cliché imaginable into its running time, but one look into the soulful eyes of its four-legged star will melt all but the coldest of hearts.

And there is no doubt that Shelby, the rescue dog here groomed for stardom, is the undisputed marquee player of this family-oriented drama recalling any number of similarly themed predecessors including, of course, 1963's The Incredible Journey and its 1993 remake, Homeward Bound. Shelby plays the central role of Bella, whose pit bull mother is taken away by a dog catcher in cahoots with a villainous real estate developer intent on tearing down some dilapidated houses despite their being home to numerous stray cats and dogs.

One of them is Bella, who finds a loving new family with young VA hospital worker Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) and his war veteran mother Terri (Ashley Judd), whose depression promptly lifts with the arrival of the lovable puppy. Taking part in the dog-oriented family fun is Olivia (Alexandra Shipp), Lucas' co-worker and eventual love interest.

Bella's pit bull lineage comes back to haunt her even though she really doesn't look like the breed. It turns out that Denver, where the story is set, has a law mandating the capture of pit bulls if they're found outside. "That’s basically racism for dogs," protests Olivia.

After being briefly incarcerated at the local pound, Bella is temporarily shipped off to another family hundreds of miles away until legal arrangements can be made. But not understanding the situation and eager to play the familiar game "Go Home" to be reunited with her beloved Lucas, Bella makes a break for it and starts out on her hazardous journey. We understand her motivations since the film features a running narration by the canine character, adorably voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard.

Along the way, Bella meets a variety of colorful characters both animal and human, including an orphan mountain lion club that she takes under her wing (paw?), a gay couple who briefly adopts her after she helps save an avalanche victim, and a homeless veteran, played by Edward James Olmos, who uses her to maximize his begging potential.

Although frequently lighthearted, A Dog's Way Home features some intense scenes that may upset its youngest viewers, such as a terrifying encounter with a pack of wolves, Bella nearly starving to death while chained up and a perilous traversing of a busy highway. But its PG rating would probably be most affected if Bella actually caught any of the squirrels and rabbits she periodically pursues, which would have turned the film into a very different kind of nature story.

Accompanied by a series of uplifting pop tunes, including a cover of Bill Withers' "Lean on Me," the story strikes endless predictable beats. Director Charles Martin Smith, who has no small amount of cinematic experience with animals thanks to his starring role in Never Cry Wolf and his helming of A Dolphin's Tale and its sequel, among other films, never misses an opportunity for visual clichés, such as the slapstick pratfalls that occur when Bella makes a foray into a grocery store to steal a chicken.

But it's all relatively harmless, and anyone who loves dogs (and that should really be everyone) will overlook the story's formulaic aspects and just enjoy having their heartstrings pulled. The talented human performers on hand, including Wes Studi as a police captain who shows up to set things right at the conclusion, are just a bonus.   

Production companies: Bona Film Group, Pariah, Columbia Pictures
Distributor: Columbia
Cast: Ashley Judd, Jonah Hauer-King, Edward James Olmos, Alexandra Shippa, Wes Studi, Bryce Dallas Howard
Director: Charles Martin Smith
Screenwriters: W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon
Producer: Gavin Polone
Executive producers: Robert J. Dohmann, T.D. Jakes, Derrick Williams, You Dong, Jeffrey Chan
Director of photography: Peter Menzies
Production designer: Eric Fraser
Editors: Debra Neil-Fisher, David Clark, Sabrina Pisco
Composer: Mychael Danna
Costume designer: Monique Prudhomme

Rated PG, 96 minutes