Engaging critically with Dog Movies can be a challenge. Who wants to be the crank who scoffs that the heartwarming animal movie is just too contrived and sentimental? But it can be hard to avoid, with the sickly sweet pabulum of recent films such as “A Dog’s Purpose.”
Fortunately, “A Dog’s Journey,” the third in a trilogy of novels from W. Bruce Cameron, offers up an interesting, complex story into which we can sink our teeth. Directed by Emmy-winning TV director Gail Mancuso and written by “Purpose” vets Cameron, Maya Forbes, Cathryn Michon and Wallace Wolodarsky, “A Dog’s Journey” has the emotional bite to match its somewhat hokey bark.
Both “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Journey” are metaphysical and philosophical films that purport the theory that the same dog spirit has been reincarnated again and again into different canine forms over its owner’s lifetime, always trying to make it back home.
Bailey, the St. Bernard from “A Dog’s Purpose,” reappears as a kindly older dog in “Journey,” the beloved pet of Ethan (Dennis Quaid) and Hannah (Marg Helgenberger). Bailey bonds with the couple’s toddler granddaughter, CJ (Emma Volk), while their daughter-in-law (Betty Gilpin) grieves the death of CJ’s father in a car wreck. A selfish and vain woman, she impulsively leaves the family farm with her daughter, denying the grandparents any chance of seeing her again.
Losing a beloved dog is a part of pet ownership, and as Ethan says goodbye to his friend Bailey for the final time, he implores the dog to find and protect CJ in his next lives, because she’ll need it.
CJ grows up a lonely, sad girl (Abby Ryder Fortson and Kathryn Prescott), but Bailey finds her again and again, as a beagle named Molly, a mastiff named Big Dog and finally, a Yorkie named Max, who has the greatest influence on CJ’s life, and helps her to believe in the magic of the animal’s spirit.
It’s about halfway through the film when one realizes how much deeper Mancuso and team are going with this dog’s journey. This isn’t all romps in the tall grass and stories of puppy heroism or feats of strength — it’s about family trauma, death, domestic abuse, neglectful parenting, addiction and life-threatening illness. It’s about how dogs can fill the hole in your heart that a person might leave.
The whole shtick of these movies is the treat-motivated, not-quite-getting-it doggy voice-over, performed by Josh Gad, and it lightens the film. But going dark and emotional makes the film work better than the prior two.
★★½ “A Dog’s Journey,” with Dennis Quaid, Marg Helgenberger, Abby Ryder Fortson, Kathryn Prescott, Henry Lau, Betty Gilpin, the voice of Josh Gad. Directed by Gail Mancuso, from a screenplay by W. Bruce Cameron, Maya Forbes, Cathryn Michon and Wallace Wolodarsky, based on a novel by Cameron. 108 minutes. Rated PG for thematic content, some peril and rude humor. Opens May 17 at multiple theaters.