A DOG’S WAY HOME review by Mark Walters – a welcome return of the sweet family film

A DOG’S WAY HOME review by Mark Walters – a welcome return of the sweet family film

When I was a kid, long before I ever imagined myself being a film critic, I used to really enjoy going to see fun family films with my parents. I’m referring to stuff like BENJI, THE BLACK STALLION, THE FOX AND THE HOUND, THE ADVENTURES OF MILO AND OTIS… come to think of it, some of the best and most beloved fare involved animals. These days, the “family film” is a little harder to come by, or at least in the form it used to have. Disney is busy remaking all their animated movies into live action, and the rest of Hollywood seems obsessed with sequels and franchise films. A DOG’S WAY HOME feels like a nice throwback to the good old days of safe family movies, and it stands on its own as a one-off cinematic treat. Based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron (A DOG’S PURPOSE), the story follows Bella, a young female pup who finds a loving home and becomes an inspiration to her owners and others in need of spiritual healing.

Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) and his girlfriend Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) have been feeding and looking in on a family of homeless cats and kittens across the street from where Lucas lives, and discover a puppy among them. Lucas decides to bring the puppy home in hopes that it will help comfort his mother Terri (Ashley Judd), who is former military and member of a group of injured veterans at the local VA hospital. He names the dog “Bella”, and we hear Bella’s thoughts courtesy of voice over by Bryce Dallas Howard. Bella is an adorable creature, but needs attention and is quite curious, meaning Lucas has to keep an eye on her a lot. One day he’s forced to sneak her in at the hospital, hiding Bella in a janitor closet, but her barking risks getting them both in trouble. On a whim, one of the hospital vets decides to take her into the therapy group, where they find her to be a great comfort, even if they have to keep her presence secret from the hospital head doctors. A little later, Bella runs out of the house chasing a squirrel she’s always after, and the local animal control officer tells Lucas and Terri that the animal has been designated a “pitbull” and is illegal to be on the streets, taking the dog in by law and leading to Lucas paying a fine to get her back. They decide to board her at some relatives’ house until Lucas can move to a nearby town where the law no longer applies, but Bella runs away and gets lost. Now she must experience several adventures in her effort to return home and to the owner she desperately missed and loves.

While A DOG’S WAY HOME is filled with some exciting moments and more than a few thrills, it’s a very sweet and safe movie that parents could easily take kids to without fear of them seeing anything too scary or sad. That’s not to say there aren’t some sad moments in the film, I found my grown self crying more than a few times at some of the emotional scenes, but only because they’re done in such an effective way. Director Charles Martin Smith (you may remember him fondly in THE UNTOUCHABLES) finds a great balance of fun and excitement in Bella’s adventures, giving us ample chuckles when she does something sickeningly cute or silly, but really knows how to tug at our heartstrings with some of the more intense moments. And despite the characters in the movie all being portrayed very safely and “PG” in their personalities, they still feel very real and authentic. The film also does a good job of explaining how dogs are perceived by a wide variety of people, whether it’s veterans coping with PTSD and needing comfort, or animal control officers not knowing if a dog is in fact safe to be around. It even explains how the term “pitbull” is used in an almost racist way to label dogs as dangerous even when they might not be, rather than being just a name for a specific type of canine.

The cast is great, all of them looking like they love being in this movie, with Jonah Hauer-King and Alexandra Shipp playing a very endearing young couple perfect for this generation. Ashley Judd is a welcome face among the headliners, and it’s great seeing folks like Edward James Olmos and Wes Studi playing brief but memorable characters. But let’s face it, the star of the film is Bella, played by a real life rescue dog named Shelby who is incredible in the film. You may have seen her in a recent Wal-Mart Christmas commercial where she’s sliding toward the front door as the doorbell rings. Shelby turns in an Oscar-worthy animal performance, really selling whatever moment is unraveling in the screenplay, and has such a sweet and innocent face that even those who aren’t dog people would likely find her endearing. I’m telling ya, folks, she’s gonna melt your heart. Bryce Dallas Howard’s voice is at times a little sappy, but still manages to fit our heroic pup quite well. When Bella is excited, and Howard’s voice is excited, we find ourselves getting excited for her. It’s kind of manipulative, but in the best possible way.

The messages of the film are really great, and never feel overly pushed. The film also shows more of a modern culture without it feeling forced or shoehorned in. For example, there’s a scene where two men take Bella in for a while after finding her in the snowy mountains… and these men are a gay couple, but it feels very ordinary and organically done rather than something put in the film with a purpose or agenda. Sadly, some ultra-religious groups may take issue with scenes like these, but I thought it was handled well. I also respected the idea of another scene showing a dog owner who treats his dog with disdain, as it’s only natural to expect not everyone in the movie should just automatically love dogs, plus it makes the characters who do respect animals seem more compassionate. I particularly love the inclusion of dogs being used to help veterans, as I’ve seen this in person and it’s a very legit and effective technique.

If you’ve never read any of W. Bruce Cameron’s books, this would be a great starter course for you to familiarize yourself with his material. And he’s got more of these films on the way, with A DOG’S JOURNEY hitting theaters this May. While I enjoyed A DOG’S PURPOSE for what it was, I found A DOG’S WAY HOME to be more of a knockout, as it reminded me of watching these types of movies in my youth. I even brought things full circle and took my mom with me to the screening, and she also found the film to be wonderful. If you’re looking for a relaxing break from the giant blockbuster movies filled with explosions and big name actor egos, this may be the perfect alternative.

Be Sociable, Share!

About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.