EXPECTATIONS: A middle-of-the-road dogsploitation flick.
REVIEW: If there’s one specific subgenre that is bound to draw upon polarizing opinions between mainstream audiences and the critics, it’s the dog-centric drama genre. From films like Marley & Me, Hachiko: A Dog’s Tale, A Dog’s Purpose, My Dog Skip and many others, these types of films have drawn wildly varied responses from incredibly heartwarming and poignant to absolutely insufferable and sickly sentimental. But there is one uniting factor between the two: people do love dogs.
Now filmmakers have taken this fact as an advantage and used it as a means of cynical business. There’s a reason why there are many straight-to-VOD films featuring dogs, and that’s because it sells. But just because you love the subject matter of a film, it doesn’t guarantee that the film is any good.
Therein lies the rub: personal bias. In my case, I love dogs. I owned many dogs. They have been a presence in my life since I was born. But I’m also a film critic and I must try my best to be as objective as I can, particularly for the film in question. Case in point, Charles Martin Smith‘s A Dog’s Way Home. Considering the director’s pedigree (pun intended), the critical reception of the last film based on source material by the same author, will the film be a heartwarming success or will it be neutered?
The film centers around a dog called Bella (with narration by Bryce Dallas Howard). Leading through a life of tragedy due to her family being split up by evil dog catchers, she is taken care for by a cat, alongside her kittens. Over time, Bella finds her way into the ownership of Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King).
But due to evil landowners and more evil dog catchers, Bella becomes separated from Lucas and there on, she goes on a 400-mile journey back home, that spans across two winters, touching the lives of those she meets.
There is a certain formula that these dog-centric films follow to a T, and it is as follows: Pop music montages? Check. Emotional slow-motion moments? Check. Evil dog catchers? Check. Overbearing and syrupy musical score? Check. Unimportant human characters? Check. In the case of A Dog’s Way Home, it follows all of those things. But is the film any good, in terms of artistic merit that transcends it from its formulaic trappings? The answer is no.
A Dog’s Way Home is exactly as cynical, hokey and sappy as expected. Let’s begin with the positives. The dogs that play Bella over many time periods are cute, the cast (including Ashley Judd, Wes Studi, Alexandra Shipp, Barry Watson and Edward James Olmos) do what they can to add charm with their limited character sketches and Bryce Dallas Howard makes the most out of her voicework as Bella, as her voice displays the perfect intonation of optimism, verve and sincerity.
Unfortunately, that is all undone by sloppy filmmaking choices and a remarkable lack of subtlety. First off, the musical score by Mychael Danna telegraphs everything so bluntly, that you could probably figure out the plot with your eyes closed. Adding to the telegraphing, the use of the narration provided by Howard ruins all sense of visual storytelling, to the point that it becomes boring, predictable and even insulting. The audience can figure things out for themselves.
Not to mention the many moments of bad dialogue, including the line “That’s racism for dogs!”, said by Shipp, when dogs are discriminated for how they look; as well as the characterizations like how most dog catchers are evil and the use of musical montages, with bad covers of great songs like Bill Withers‘ Lean On Me. Where is the visual storytelling in all of this? Films like Eight Below never relied on dog voiceovers to convey the feelings and emotions nor the story to be told.
And there are questionable moments in the film that will baffle the little ones and will confound the adults. One example involves Bella running across heavy traffic. While the scene is appropriately intense, it becomes needlessly violent for children to the point of being exploitative. But the biggest example is a subplot involving a homeless person, Axel (Edward James Olmos) that is so tone-deaf towards its intended audience, that it takes them out of the film.
Since the film is too intense for children and too immature for adults, who is this film for? Maybe for those who enjoy misery porn. In either case, a little subtlety would’ve worked wonders for a film like A Dog’s Way Home, but unfortunately, it’s all bark and no bite.
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Cast: Ashley Judd, Jonah Hauer-King, Edward James Olmos, Alexandra Shipp, Wes Studi, Bryce Dallas Howard
Director: Charles Martin Smith
Screenwriters: W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon