A DOG'S WAY HOME
Director: Charles Martin Smith
Screenwriters: Cathryn Michon and W. Bruce Cameron, based on Cameron’s eponymous novel.
Bryce Dallas Howard (uncredited)
Edward James Olmos
Runtime: 96 mins.
Australian release date: 28 February 2019
Previewed at: Hoyts Cinemas, Moore Park, Sydney, 23 February 2019.
Oscar Wilde opined that, “Life imitates Art more than Art imitates Life” and his aphorism is borne out in the hard-luck tale of the star of Charles Martin Smith’s A Dog’s Way Home. In this case, it’s not an actor but a rescue dog, a stray that was living on a waste dump in Tennessee until she was found by an animal control officer, taken to an animal shelter and ended up being cast in this movie - and what a performance she gives. While this isn’t exactly her story, Shelby (the name she was given) seems to be drawing on her early struggles in this chronicle about a dog making an epic 600-kilometre journey to find her master, because she’s a natural!
Cut to the film and we meet Bella (voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard), at this stage an adorable black-and-tan mongrel pup living on a demolition site in Denver, Colorado. She is taken in by a caring neighbour, med student Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), who has been feeding a family of cats residing on the site, when he discovers that Bella is living with them, tended to by ‘Mother Cat’ because her own doggy mum was impounded by the local animal controller, Chuck (John Cassini). Lucas lives with his mother, Terri (Ashley Judd), an Afghan war veteran, and is training at the Department of Veterans Affairs repatriation hospital that his mum attends as a day-patient. Looking after Bella is difficult, however, because their lease says ‘no dogs’ and a house inspection is looming, plus Gunter (Brian Markinson), the owner of the building site, is out to get Lucas because he informed the council that the site was still a sanctuary for stray animals and halted the demolition. Worst of all, Gunter gets his dog catcher mate Chuck to declare the dog a pit bull, a breed forbidden to live within Denver city limits. Bella is smuggled into the VA hospital, because it is on Federal land, where she is a big hit with the patients but eventually this idyllic situation is compromised because of its unofficial status. Until he can relocate to new premises, Lucas organises for Bella to stay with friends some 600 kilometres away in New Mexico, where the restriction of owning a pit bull is not an issue. Traumatised by the loss of her owner, however, Bella escapes to attempt the long, cross-country trip back to Denver to find him. The journey is full of adventure and danger, and includes her looking after an orphaned cougar cub, being hunted by wolves, living with a depressed homeless veteran (Edward James Olmos), and being taken in by a loving gay couple (Barry Watson and Motell Foster), but none of these occurrences can deter Bella from “doing ‘Go Home!’”
Husband and wife screenwriters W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon’s story contains several harrowing moments and also some slightly saccharin messages pertaining to the plight of veterans and injustice towards animals. Animal yarns seem to be their niche because they also collaborated on the script of another of Cameron’s successful books that was turned into a film, Lasse Hallström’s A Dog’s Purpose, the sequel to which (A Dog’s Journey) is due for release later this year. However, A Dog’s Way Home is a great family film and, judging by the preview screening, will be well received - you could have heard a pin drop in an audience that consisted of many young children who seemed captivated by the on-screen action. The only noise was the rustling of tissues during the most emotional moments. The camera-work by Peter Menzies Jr. is stunning, particularly the material filmed in the mountains in winter and Bryce Dallas Howard’s voice-over covers the drama well. As already said, Shelby’s performance is absolutely remarkable, even if on occasion her CGI companions don’t look quite so real. There are enough tender scenes, and edgy ones, to keep you engaged and, if nothing else, it’s worth sitting through the 96 minutes just for the outcome. If you have ever owned a pet that disappeared out of your life, then this experience will bring it all back home (pun intended).