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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that A Dog's Way Home, like 2017's A Dog's Purpose, is based on one of author W. Bruce Cameron's books. In this case, the central canine is Bella (voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard), who embarks upon a perilous 400-mile, two-plus-year journey to get back to her human companion after an unexpected separation. Although there's no dog death or reincarnation as in A Dog's Purpose, there are several disturbing/potentially upsetting scenes, including (spoiler alert!) the tragic death of a homeless man who had chained Bella to him to keep her close, an avalanche, mention of animals being euthanized, confrontations between Bella and wolves, injuries to animals (including an offscreen gun shot), and sad/upsetting separations, some of which end with Bella saying "I never saw them again." That said, dog-loving families who can handle the emotional roller coaster will enjoy the movie's messages about perseverance, empathy, and the incredibly strong bonds between dogs and their humans. Expect a little bit of very mild language ("hell," "stupid," "moron"), some background drinking, and a bit of affection between both opposite-sex and same-sex couples.
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What's the story?
A DOG'S WAY HOME, based on W. Bruce Cameron's same-named book, centers on a pitbull-mix dog named Bella (voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard). Bella starts her life in Denver as a stray pup who lives in an abandoned lot with her mother and littermates. After Bella's mom is caught by animal control, a mama cat nurses Bella and adopts her. One day, Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), who lives near the lot, shows his crush, Olivia (Alexandra Shipp), the cats. In the process, they discover cute little Bella, and Lucas brings her home to live with him and his mother (Ashley Judd), a veteran who's struggling with depression. For a while, Bella enjoys an idyllic life with Lucas and his mom and even comforts the veterans at the VA hospital where Lucas works (and his mom attends group therapy sessions). But when animal control deems Bella dangerous (because she's part pit) and threatens euthanasia, Lucas teaches her a game called "Go Home" in which she races back to their house. After Lucas is forced to place Bella in the temporary care of Olivia's aunt and uncle in New Mexico, Bella believes she must play "Go Home" and begins her long, perilous journey home.
Is it any good?
Cameron is like Nicholas Sparks, but for pet stories; his crowd-pleasing, tearjerking work focuses on the powerful love between humans and their dogs. And while dog-loving families will be happy to note that, unlike in A Dog's Purpose, there's no death scene involving the central canine in A Dog's Way Home, there definitely is an emotional, intense story arc that's likely to leave them in tears. Howard does a fine job voicing the incredibly loving, determined, and long-suffering Bella, who wants nothing more than to play with Lucas and comfort "Mom" and her veteran friends. Bella's relationship with the doting Lucas (Hauer-King is sweetly charming) is as cute as you'd expect, especially the twee way he offers her a "tiny piece of cheese" every night before bed.
But the movie's second half, which deals with the series of sad to seriously upsetting obstacles Bella faces once she's separated from Lucas, is overlong. The scenes Bella spends as an adoptive mother to an orphaned baby cougar she calls "Big Kitten" feel like they're part of one of those "unlikely animal friends" stories, but the cougar looks so overtly computer-generated that the effect can be off-putting. And when Bella ends up with homeless Axel (Edward James Olmos), things get downright depressing. The theme of veterans suffering from mental illness works in the context of service dogs, but Axel's situation seems a bit heavy for what's otherwise clearly a family-targeted film. There's a brief moment of happiness when Bella temporarily lives with a kind married couple (Barry Watson and Motell Gyn Foster) who want to adopt her. She's tempted, but her heart belongs at home, with Lucas.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the violent/upsetting scenes in A Dog's Way Home. Do you think they're necessary to the story? Can a movie have violent/scary parts and still be family-friendly?
Discuss how the movie includes diverse representations of dog owners. Why is it important to see people from different walks of life and backgrounds in media?
How does the movie portray veterans? Is it sympathetic? What do veterans need that they aren't always getting?
- In theaters: January 11, 2019
- On DVD or streaming: April 9, 2019
- Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Ashley Judd, Jonah Hauer-King
- Director: Charles Martin Smith
- Studio: Sony Pictures Entertainment
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Cats, Dogs, and Mice
- Character strengths: Empathy, Perseverance
- Run time: 96 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic elements, some peril and language
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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