'A Dog's Way Home' Review: A Feel-Good Family Film That Takes A Bizarrely Dark Direction

A Dog's Way Home is a Hallmark card of a movie — it's pretty and cute, but it's full of empty emotion. Until about two-thirds of the way through the film when you realize that there may be a surprisingly dark hidden message scribbled in the corner by an embittered card maker.

Penned by the writers of 2017's saccharine super-hit A Dog's Purpose, W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon, A Dog's Way Home treads a similar path. There's a wholesome story about a loyal dog (voiced with an extra-sweet lilt by Bryce Dallas Howard) that will overcome any obstacles to make its way back to its loving owner, here an aspiring medical student named Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King). But this is no sequel — you can look to the similarly blandly named novel A Dog's Journey later this spring for that — this is a whole new beast. And it's weirdly dark.

Cameron and Michon's last film, A Dog's Purpose, had that undercurrent of darkness to it — it does, after all, require its titular dog to die and be reincarnated several times — but the tonal shifts in A Dog's Way Home were jarring enough to give me whiplash. What starts off as a sunny family film with a cartoonishly evil villain transforms into a grim survival story in which Bella at one point nearly dies of dehydration while chained to the corpse of a homeless man. Take your kids to see this movie!

A Dog's Way Home opens with a backstory tragic enough to put Bella in a Disney movie. Born to a pitbull that lives in an abandoned lot alongside a pack of feral cats, Bella spends her early years escaping capture from Animal Control. But one day she's discovered by the kindly medical student Lucas, who quickly adopts and raises her along with his veteran mom (Ashley Judd).

With Lucas' love interest and coworker at the VA, Olivia (Alexandra Shipp), the trio form a family unit around Bella who quickly endears herself to the whole community — except for the nasty landlord who wants to raze the land where she grew up and where her cat siblings still live. Told from the point of view of Bella, A Dog's Way Home instantly puts itself forward as the kind of wholesome film where Bella frequently frolics in the snow, chases squirrels, and hides from doctors at the VA, while cutely referring to all her activities as "games" that she plays with Lucas. This version of A Dog's Way Home touches on real issues like Denver's laws against pitbulls and veterans suffering from PTSD, though they're periphery to Bella's own simple adventures. This is the type of movie where Olivia cries, "That's like racism for dogs!" when told of Denver's (actually kind of racist) ban on pitbulls.

Now, I was on board for this version of the movie. I've watched my share of adorable puppy internet videos. If you're giving me basically a two-hour version of that, with some treacly sentiment and a little bit of the wacky Homeward Bound antics thrown in, I know what I'm in for and I'm in. But A Dog's Way Home refuses to let you settle in.

Bella is soon labeled a pitbull by the vindictive Animal Control Officer (Barry Watson) and Lucas and his mom are forced to find a place in the suburbs to skirt around Denver's pitbull ban. But while they search for a new house, Bella is put up at Olivia's parents house where, confused and lonely, she escapes with one thought in mind: Go home.

What follows is a surprisingly bleak survival story that feels out of place with the Disney-style movie that we had been watching until now. And Bella is still the naive, Disney-esque protagonist that she was before this, making the shift all the more unsettling. Embarking on her 400-mile journey home, Bella encounters all manner of humans and CGI woodland creatures. But the majority of the film centers around her friendship with a badly animated baby bobcat as they attempt to survive in the wilds of a national park while fending off a pack of bloodthirsty coyotes (also badly animated).

There's a director somewhere that would be able to balance A Dog's Way Home's sugary sentiment with its bouts of melancholy. But Charles Martin Smith (Air Bud) is not that director. Smith breezes through the film's darker moments at the same chipper pace as he does its silly moments, which results in the aforementioned tonal whiplash. Kids watching this movie would barely have time to absorb the existential dread of finding a dog chained to a homeless man's body (Edward James Olmos in a surprising appearance) before the film launches into another of its inspirational running montages, complete with gorgeous sweeping drone shots of the rugged Coloradan landscapes.

Coupled with the bad CGI littered throughout this film — not only are we treated to bad CGI-animated bobcats and coyotes, there are several laughable "growing up" sequences in which Bella is CGI'd from puppy to bigger puppy —  A Dog's Way Home just ends up a baffling experience. Who is this for? Not the kid next to me squirming impatiently as Bella nearly dies of dehydration. And not the parent whose eyes glazed over during Bella's many excited musings over squirrels. Perhaps A Dog's Way Home is just meant for the abyss of streaming service films that bored families will put on to pass the time.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10