"A Dog's Way Home" cloys its viewer into submission. It's corny at times, its very title is seemingly a spoiler, and the premise plays like a loose remake of 1993's "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey" (itself a remake of 1963's "The Incredible Journey"). Like 2017's "A Dog's Purpose
," the film is based on a canine-focused novel by W. Bruce Cameron (who also co-writes the screenplay with Cathryn Michon), and the story is narrated by the four-legged protagonist at its center. In "A Dog's Purpose
," Josh Gad winningly voiced the thoughts of a series of pups through the decades, each one a reincarnation of the last. In "A Dog's Way Home," the expressive, always-winning Bryce Dallas Howard (2018's "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
") gives voice to a single pit bull named Bella, torn apart from her beloved human owner Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) and on a perilous 400-mile trek back to Denver, Colorado, to reunite with him.
Directed by Charles Martin Smith (2014's "Dolphin Tale 2
"), "A Dog's Way Home" is hokier and perhaps a touch more juvenile than "A Dog's Purpose
." Animal lovers will be torn between being enamored by the adorable Bella and in a state of terror at the number of ways her life is threatened across the 96-minute running time (she faces starvation, an avalanche, a wolf attack, and the threat of getting hit by a car, to name but a few). If there is a certain masochistic grimness to its narrative edges, its feel-good, saccharine-yet-sincere heart goes a long way in softening the script's cavalcade of dangers.
A brief segment where Bella is taken in by a warm, sympathetic same-sex couple (Barry Watson and Motell Foster) is a welcome touch in a family film that doesn't often embrace such diverse representation. Meanwhile, a bond Bella forms with a motherless cougar whom she names "Big Kitten" is undeniably cute but also occasionally disconcerting since Bella is largely played by a live-action dog and the cougar is an obvious CG creation. Any question of whether or not "A Dog's Way Home" works in the long run, however, is answered in time for its irresistible finale and the crucial moment in which the wiser, tattered Bella's place in the world alongside Lucas and Lucas' war-vet mother Terri (Ashley Judd) is tearfully confirmed. Certainly manipulative but also ultimately affecting, the picture knows exactly how to wrap audiences around its furry little paw. Stone-hearted cynics need not apply.