By Thom Ernst
A Dog's Journey has it all: neglect, abuse, alcoholism, cancer, and dying dogs. It's everything you can ask for in family-friendly drama. Sure, the movie alludes to grander themes about family and unconditional love, but its sole purpose is to make you cry, and the filmmakers aren't leaving anything to chance.
If one tragic scene doesn't wrench a tear out of you, the next scene will. Those longing for a good weep might find the experience cathartic while others won't forgive the film for its all-too-manipulative tactics. After all, how hard is it to elicit audience emotions from a basket full of puppies or an owner's last moments cradling his beloved dying pet?
This movie comes on the heels of Lasse Hallström's successful A Dog's Purpose (2017) but without that director’s more subtle influences. For those unfamiliar with the format, the stories centre around a dog trapped in a cycle of living, dying and reincarnating. It's about as close to a faith-based film as you can get without actually being a faith-based film.
A Dog's Journey picks up where A Dog's Purpose left off, with Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) reunited with his owner, Ethan (Dennis Quaid). Bailey ages and dies, as dogs frequently do in these movies, only to be reborn. In an inversion of the 'dying wish' theme, Ethan gives Bailey one last command, that when he returns (rebirth is a given in these films), he finds and protects C.J. (Kathryn Prescott), Ethan's lost grandchild. I don’t have a lot of experience in what it's like to die or what it's like to be a dog, but I suspect that dying is pressure enough without adding the stress of fulfilling someone's last request. Nonetheless, it's on the premise of Ethan's last request to Bailey that the story of A Dog's Journey begins.
Bailey goes through several rebirths and though his breed and gender changes, he is always a dog, and he remembers the details of each past life including his promise to locate and protect C.J. Bailey finds that life has not been easy for C.J. after being separated from her adoring grandparents. She's left in the uncaring care of her broken, narcissistic mother; she endures bad relationships and struggles to launch her music career despite debilitating stage-fright.
Through all this, the film uses fate as a device to bring C.J. and Bailey together throughout their different stages and incarnations. At some point in the movie, you're liable to start doing the math, wondering just how many dogs can one person have in a lifetime. If the odds of C.J. and fate continually encountering each other seem an unreal remember, recall that this is a movie about a reincarnating dog with an audible thought process.
A Dog's Journey is a film that romanticizes the needs of the master over the beast. And while it's not untrue that domesticated dogs live to please, the willingness of the film to take full advantage of such unconditional devotion can feel exploitative. The film's story, despite spanning a lifetime, doesn't seem big enough for the large screen. A Dog's Journey seems more suited to the straight-to-television talking dog genre.
A Dog's Journey. Directed by Gail Mancuso. Starring Josh Gad, Dennis Quaid, and Kathryn Prescott. Opens wide May 17.