Not to be confused with the recent A Dog’s Way Home, which isn’t difficult considering it comes from a book written by the same author, A Dog’s Journey is the sequel to A Dog’s Purpose.
The titles are interchangeable. In 2017’s Purpose, the dog named Bailey journeyed through four lives due to reincarnation until he eventually circled back to his original owner Ethan, once a boy, now a grown man. In this year’s Journey, Bailey is given a purpose by Ethan at the moment the dog sadly passes on. He’s to come back, look for Ethan’s granddaughter, and keep her safe.
As before, Bailey, voiced again by every family’s favorite frozen Disney snowman, Josh Gad, will reincarnate until events lead the pooch back to Ethan (Dennis Quaid) and his wife Hannah (this time played by Marg Helgenberger replacing the late Peggy Lipton). He’ll begin as Bailey, then move on as Molly – “I’m a girl this time!” exclaims the surprised canine – then as Max, then as Toby.
“I’ve lived a lot of lives and I’ve pee’d on a lot of stuff,” Bailey reminds us in an introductory voice-over. The setup this time is that Ethan and Hannah have opened their farmhouse doors to daughter-in-law Gloria (Betty Gilpin) and their granddaughter Clarity June, or CJ, after the death of Ethan and Hannah’s son. From the outset, Gloria is the film’s principal villain. “Does anybody think about what I need?” she demands when it’s clear that both Ethan and Hannah care about her all the time. She’s also a neglectful mother to CJ, and, worse, she hates dogs.
After a confrontation and an unfair accusation that all the grandparents want is to get their hands on their son’s insurance money, Gloria loads the car, takes CJ and drives away, determined that her daughter will never see her grandparents again. Heartbroken with no knowledge of where Gloria and CJ may be, Ethan and Hannah, along with Bailey who is not entirely sure why all the big people around him are so unhappy, are left alone on the farm. And when due to an illness, Bailey is euthanized – I know, it’s about fifteen minutes into the film and I’m already reaching for the Kleenex – Ethan asks his dog to return with a specific purpose. “Come back for CJ like you came back for me,” whispers Ethan. Which is what the dog does.
At each point of Bailey’s rebirth as a different breed, somehow the universe has contrived his arrival to be near where CJ happens to be, whether it’s somewhere in Pennsylvania or later in another life in New York. Each time, the young girl is just that little bit older.
If you’ve read the W. Bruce Cameron novel, you’ll see that while the overall story arc is similar, there are several events and outcomes altered, particularly with the character of deadbeat mom Gloria. Her fate in the book and the circumstances of her mental health are fortunately not a part of the film, though that doesn’t stop her from being portrayed in a thoroughly negative light. “Can you figure out your dinner tonight?” she tells her daughter as the woman readies herself to go out on another date. “Again?” responds the high-school teenager left alone to fend for herself. Later, when an older CJ (English actor Kathryn Prescott with a perfectly fine American accent) has the courage to confront her mother after the woman, while drunk, reveals a truly awful thing that she has done, CJ tells her, “You are literally the worst mother in the world.”
What the film has understandably done is held back on much of the dark, serious qualities that author Cameron incorporated into his best-selling novel. Everything is made just that little more palatable for a family audience. There’s still conflict and upset – ne’er do well boyfriends, drunkenness, death, the emotional abuse of a resentful parent, cancer, not to mention those moments when the dog passes on – but handled with a lighter touch that keeps the story buoyant, and, because of Gad’s upbeat narration as Bailey, often funny. When Bailey tells us how he enjoys those fallen scraps that land on the floor, the system is, “She drops it. I eat it. That’s our deal.”
In truth, A Dog’s Journey is what you expect; exactly what you expect. It’s the movie-going equivalent of a country kitchen comfort food breakfast you might order at Cracker Barrell. You make your order, you know what you’re getting, there are no surprises, but it tastes just as you want and you’re always satisfied. Like Bailey and those fallen table scraps, that’s the deal. After all, that’s why you went.
When people eventually reunite and a love that was always meant to be finally comes to pass, be warned, there’ll be no stopping a theatre full of sniffs, even though you knew it was all going to unfold in the way it finally does. And take extra tissues. The loudest sniff you’ll hear will probably be yours.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 108 Minutes