A DOG’S WAY HOME

Producer: Gavin Polone
Director: Charles Martin Smith
Writer: W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon
Stars: Shelby,  Ashley Judd, Jonah Hauer-King, Edward James Olmos, Alexandra Shipp, Wes Studi, Barry Watson, Motell Foster, John Cassini, Chris Bauer, Brian Markinson, Tammy Gillis and Bryce Dallas Howard
Studio: Sony Entertainment/Columbia Pictures

C

From the writer of “A Dog’s Purpose” comes another canine soap opera. Happily, unlike its predecessor “A Dog’s Way Home” doesn’t involve multiple doggie deaths and reincarnations, but it too ends with the reunion of master and pet calculated to bring “oohs” and “ahs” from its viewers.

The plot is an old chestnut. Bella (voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard—yes, she talks, or at least thinks loudly), a rescue dog brought up by a cat after her pit-bull mother is seized by animal control, finds a home with med student Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) and his mother Terri (Ashley Judd), an army veteran coping with post-service depression. Unfortunately, Lucas falls afoul of a developer (Brian Markinson), who’s trying to tear down some deserted houses where stray cats and dogs live, and he in turn enlists a nasty dogcatcher (John Cassini) to target Bella; she’s actually in violation of Denver’s anti-pit-bull ordinance if she’s found loose on the streets.

Lucas and his girlfriend Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) arrange for Bella to stay temporarily with her folks in New Mexico while they search for a place outside the city limits—they’re obviously very much dog lovers. But just as they’re about to retrieve Bella, she escapes and begins a perilous journey through the wilds of New Mexico and Colorado to get home.

So long as the film keeps its focus on Bella and the animals she encounters along the way—particularly an orphaned cougar cub that she befriends and that grows up substantially as they proceed—the picture is engaging in the same fashion that earlier stories of similar treks, “The Incredible Journey” and the “Homeward Bound” movies of the nineties, were. There are a couple of sequences that are a mite troublesome—one in which Bella causes a ruckus at a grocery store trying to find food, and another where she causes a pile-up on a freeway, both of which play the destruction in entirely humorous terms, and an encounter with a wolf pack, which is too frightening for the smallest fry.

But the locations are gorgeous (and beautifully shot by Peter Menzies, Jr.), and Shelby, the dog that plays Bella, has the sort of soulful eyes that are bound to melt the heart of every puppy-lover. The other animals, whether live-action or computer-generated, are attractive critters too, especially that loyal cougar. The editing by David S, Clark and music score by Mychael Danna are also fine.

Unfortunately, there are on-screen human beings to be considered, too, and they’re a terribly pallid lot, even when played by accomplished actors; perhaps director Charles Martin Smith was so entranced by his four-pawed performers that he didn’t spend much time with them. Ashley Judd smiles a lot but offers no real characterization, while Hauer-King and Shipp offer the sort of gee-whiz, Nickolodeon-quality turns that are pretty embarrassing on a big screen. Bryce Dallas Howard, who provides Bella’s thoughts (anthropomorphism being a major factor here), is a bit whiny and irritating, too.

The people Bella encounters along the way aren’t any better. Edward James Olmos, as a homeless man who uses her as a pawn in his begging operation (and nearly causes her death), is soporific, while Wes Studi, as the Denver chief of police, has little to do; the others, like Barry Watson and Motell Foster as a gay couple who take in Bella briefly, are simply amateurish, as are the crew playing the residents of the veterans’ home where Lucas works and Bella makes friends.

As far as doggie movies go, “A Dog’s Way Home” doesn’t deserve to be sent to the pound—in fact, it’s more enjoyable than the sappy, pseudo-profound “Dog’s Purpose”—but the mediocrity of the human element undermines Bella’s quest.