Those predisposed to emotional manipulation by dogs at play and in peril will be easily swayed by director Charles Martin Smith’s “A Dog’s Way Home.” Based on the bestselling novel by W. Bruce Cameron, this story about a lost dog attempting a 400-mile journey home takes us on an emotional roller coaster, most of it with a lump in our throats. However, for every shameless trick the filmmakers employ to pluck our heartstrings, resonant chords are struck elsewhere, teaching audiences about family, the power of unconditional love, and the ripple effects of compassion. In the pantheon of puppy pictures, this doesn’t rank as top dog, but it’s certainly not the runt of the litter either.
Bella (played by dog actor Shelby and voiced in narration by Bryce Dallas Howard) was born in the crawl space of a semi-demolished home in Denver. Raised by a stray cat she calls “Mother Cat” after her own mother was taken away from her, Bella leads a happy life. But it’s not truly fulfilled until she meets saintly animal rescue volunteers/med students Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) and Olivia (Alexandra Shipp). Her bond with Lucas is immediate, and he brings the pup home to mom Terri (Ashley Judd), a war veteran suffering from depression. Trouble is they are locked in a spat with a threatening real estate developer, Gunter (Brian Markinson), and their lease prohibits them from owning a dog. Making matters worse, there’s a city law with a low tolerance for mutts that look like Bella. Bet you know where this is going.
With the city’s villainous animal control officer Chuck (John Cassini) at Gunter’s disposal, Bella’s days of peaceful bliss in the care of Lucas and Terri are numbered. Finding the dog temporary housing is easy, but keeping her at that New Mexico home proves difficult, as Bella bolts on the same day Lucas and Olivia arrive to take her back to Colorado. Her heartwarming and harrowing odyssey through treacherous terrain and inclement weather leads her to encounter everyone from kindly hiking couple Gavin (Barry Watson) and Taylor (Motell Foster), to downtrodden homeless veteran Axel (Edward James Olmos), to an orphaned mountain lion cub she names “Big Kitten.” She also meets with danger, including a pack of bloodthirsty wolves, and a mean dog owner (Chris Bauer) she helps to rescue from an avalanche.
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Screenwriters Cameron and Cathryn Michon deftly weave a tale about empathy and kindness, as Bella pays forward all the love that Lucas and “Mother Cat” show her. Even the smallest emotional moments are well-earned, as the story illuminates the enrichment of pet ownership. The filmmakers also touch on such social issues as homelessness and veteran care. They don’t shy away from the dire, difficult circumstances at least one character faces, nor do they limit the human ensemble to heteronormative characters. The film is at its best when relying on Shelby and her trainers: It’s amazing how much of the humor, drama and emotion is carried on her canine shoulders. Yet even with all the gratuitous closeups of her expressive face and sweet eyes, it never strays into cloying territory.
That said, there’s some hokey dialogue every now and then (Olivia balks, “That’s racism but for dogs!”), but it’s tolerable. Pint-sized viewers probably won’t notice that some of the CGI looks a little ropey — particularly when Bella encounters wildlife. Those scenes may work in a book when they’re illustrated with imagination, but they can strain believability when visualized in a film. Also, the violence walks a fine line, as the fight between Bella and the wolf pack might be a tad too terrifying for the very youngest moviegoers.
Composer Mychael Danna’s score provides bouncy, bubbly buoyancy when needed (as Bella plays and chases squirrels and CG rabbits) and a somber, sweeping symphonic soundscape during the more sentimental moments (as Bella says goodbye to friends she’s made along the way). While the compositions aren’t wildly obtrusive and augment the emotion of the narrative, Smith relies a little too heavily on them in spots where he could trust his talented cast to carry the moment.