March 25, 2019

Spoiler alert: Some of the commentary below reveals important plot points in the movie.

I sat in a movie theatre last Thursday at 4:15 p.m., the earliest showing possible that day, and braced myself. As I had hoped, the early showing of A Dog’s Way Home on this particular weekday held an audience of only five.

I had chosen this showing for a reason. With makeup remover wipes and tissues in my purse, and a seat away from everyone else, I prepared for what I knew was going to be an emotional roller-coaster.

The first time I saw the trailer for A Dog’s Way Home, the movie adaptation of the book by W. Bruce Cameron, I sobbed. That was the trailer. I knew what I’d be in for when I went to see the entire movie — and I was right.

For those of us who laugh in the face of Hollywood’s honey-sweet romance stories, there is Cameron, who has been referred to by critic Sandie Angulo Chen as “Nicholas Sparks, but for pet movies.” The Notebook? Didn’t shed a tear. Human relationships and struggle in movies have never fazed me. Make the struggle about animals? Game over.

It is said that dog is man’s best friend. A Dog’s Way Home perfectly illustrates the undying love and loyalty that dogs have for their people, as Bella, a dog who is voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard, tries to make her way back home to her person, Lucas, played by Jonah Hauer-King. The movie is narrated by Bella from her innocent and optimistic perspective.

Lucas is a young man who works at a veterans’ hospital and occasionally saves animals in his spare time. He adopts Bella as a stray puppy living in rubble across the street from his house.

Bella ends up getting lost more than 600 kilometres from her home in Denver and, thus, A Dog’s Way Home is created — the story of Bella’s trials and tribulations on her way back home.

The movie features a lot of strange characters with no deeper background given to them, like an evil animal control officer who has a vendetta against Bella and actively works to see her euthanized. Or Lucas’s mom, a feisty veteran who has no problem outwardly threatening figures of authority. I would have loved more background on Lucas’s mom, but, then again, the movie was about the dog’s way back home, so it only makes sense to mainly focus on that.

What was much more concerning to me was the morbidity of some of the scenes. Bella is chained to a homeless man who dies, leaving her stuck to him, resulting in her almost dying of thirst until some kids stumble upon her and the body. Bella describes waiting by his side while all of the warmth leaves his body. I was under the impression that this movie was for a younger audience and it’s rated suitable for everyone, so that was a shocking and strange scene to include. There is a warning for some scary scenes, though. Scary scenes include Bella being continually hunted by and then fighting coyotes, a mountain lion being shot and killed before its cub’s eyes, an avalanche almost killing an elderly man and, of course, the homeless man’s death.

An interesting theme that hints at darker undertones is the repeated portrayal of veterans. The homeless man is a veteran, as is Lucas’s mom and many of the other people in the veterans’ hospital who help Bella visit them as a therapy dog in secret. Bella notes that she helps Lucas’s mom because she is always sad, but she also says that one of the other vets at the hospital, Mack, needs Bella more because he is even more sad.

When Bella meets the homeless man, she says that he is sad too, in the same way that Mack is. The way that all of the veterans in this movie are depressed and struggling seems like a metaphor for how America treats its vets. This symbolism is reinforced when the police officers threaten the veterans near the end. It’s a pretty deep theme for a movie about a dog who loves her human.

As for graphics, Bella befriends a mountain lion whose computer-generated imagery (CGI) is painfully obvious. At times, the mountain lion’s face looks almost human, which is pretty weird.

Some of the script and acting are awkward. Olivia, the love interest, has some lines in the beginning that are just bad and, at one point, a fisherman falls into a river and lets out a very over-the-top theatrical scream.

Although I cried during a lot of the movie, it was alright. It didn’t change my life, but it did tug at my heartstrings and the bond between Bella and the mountain lion is unique. It experiments with role reversal, in that Bella is raised by a mother cat in the beginning and then feels the need to be “mother cat” to the mountain lion cub, which is a cool way of doing the whole unexpected-friendship-between-species thing.

The subtle jab at how the American government treats its veterans was interesting, though, and possibly one of my favourite parts of the movie. On Common Sense Media, a lot of the reviews are bad, stating that the movie is too political or that there is a very leftist agenda to it. I really didn’t feel any of that was true, or at least obvious, in the movie.

It was a feel-good film with a few surprises, a happy ending and I can definitely see why Cameron was likened to Sparks, but for pet movies. My strongest piece of advice for anyone planning on watching A Dog’s Way Home is to do it in the privacy of your own home, so as to not embarrass yourself by sobbing in public.

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