A DOG’S JOURNEY. Josh Gad, Dennis Quaid, Marg Helgenberger, Betty Gilpin, Kathryn Prescott, Henry Lau. Directed by Gail Mancuso. 109 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes).
When a movie is so transparently designed to work your tear ducts, what value (if any) should you place on the emotion that it elicits? ‘A Dog’s Journey’ works through the trinity of weepy touchstones – cancer, death and dead dogs – with such vigour that it’s almost impressive. It’s hardly a runaway winner in the blubbering stakes (my eyes remained resolutely dry throughout, though I’m confident that the same could not be said for more susceptible audience members in my screening), but it manages to wring reasonable emotional mileage out of the treacle with which its screenplay was presumably written.
However, when your movie is about perishing pups, moving the audience emotionally feels like a foregone conclusion; as with many similarly manipulative dramas, ‘A Dog’s Journey’ stumbles over other obstacles, handicapped by its abundance of one-note of human characters and sloppy writing. If you have a pooch that’s considered a member of the family and you’re looking for a movie that loves dogs as much as you do, then you’ve probably already got tickets to see this on the big screen. Just don’t be surprised when the human journeys interspersed between the canine moments start to grate.
‘Journey’ is a sequel to the surprise 2017 hit ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ (which I admittedly did not see). ‘Purpose’ followed a dog named Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) who – through the miracle of reincarnation – lived several lives before making his way back to his first owner, Ethan (Dennis Quaid). Bailey now lives happily on Ethan’s farm, with Ethan’s loving wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberg, replacing the late Peggy Lipton), her daughter-in-law Gloria (Betty Gilpin) and Gloria’s infant daughter CJ (Emma Volk). Gloria is a terrible mother, but when Ethan and Hannah offer to care for CJ fulltime, Gloria ups and leaves with the toddler, leaving two devastated grandparents in her wake. Bailey is soon laid low by an unspecified “lump” (the movie stops just short of explicitly combining two of the weepy touchstones into the all-powerful canine cancer), but not before Ethan imbues him with a new purpose: protecting CJ. When one of your characters is required to believe that their dog is some sort of miracle mutt, you could do worse than having Dennis Quaid on hand, but even his craggy face and best mumble-growl can only sell so much.
‘Journey’ takes us through three of Bailey’s reincarnations. First pup off the rank is Molly, a female beagle that – through sheer screenwriting coincidence – manages to get adopted by an 11-year-old CJ (now played by Abby Ryder Forston). Gloria is still the world’s worst mother, adding alcoholism and a terrible taste in men to her list of character defects, so CJ is often left to care for herself. CJ’s hare-brained efforts to secretly adopt a dog and hide it from her mother forms much of this portion’s meat, but it’s meagre pickings. Forston, who was a bright spot in Marvel’s ‘Ant-Man’ franchise, holds your attention, but you really miss her chemistry with her on-screen Ant-Dad, Paul Rudd, when she’s playing opposite a dog.
Molly accompanies CJ into her teenage years (with Kathryn Prescott now assuming the role), where she becomes romantically entangled with Shane (Jake Manley), a bad boy who becomes so comically bad it’s a wonder that they didn’t give him a moustache to twirl villainously. Thanks to more mad plotting, Molly gets trained as a cancer-detection dog before shuffling off this mortal coil and being reincarnated as an English Mastiff called Big Dog. We only get an abridged version of Big Dog’s life, which he largely spends chowing down on snacks at owner Joe’s gas station, because it’s the next life that supposedly demands our attention.
Bailey returns as Max, a little Biewer Terrier with a solid line in biting strangers. Again, because the U.S. must be much smaller than explorers first thought, Max happens upon CJ in New York City, where she lives with her boyfriend Barry (Kevin Claydon) and pays the bills as a dog walker (though she harbours dreams of becoming a musician). CJ adopts Max, who eventually guides her to reconnect with her childhood best friend Trent (Henry Lau). In another example of the movie’s superficial secondary characters, both Barry and Trent’s girlfriend Liesl (Daniela Barbosa) are irredeemably awful people, leaving Max to drive them off and set CJ up with Trent. Prescott and Lau make for a nice pairing on screen, even if they can’t quite span the vast spectrum of ages and emotions that the film expects from them.
The above is a reasonably thorough synopsis of the film, but it’s the kind of story that is so predictable that it doesn’t warrant a spoiler warning. It’s a family film from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, so its happy ending was never in doubt. Adapted from the novel of the same name by W. Bruce Cameron, ‘Journey’ writing credits list a hodgepodge of scribes including a comedienne and a former writer on ‘The Simpsons’. As you’d expect of this comedic pedigree, there are some good jokes rooted in seeing the world from a dog’s perspective, like Bailey’s description of a tractor as the “car where the windows are always rolled down”. However, these are handily outnumbered by lazy, unfunny non-sequiturs about sniffing behinds and bodily functions. These “jokes” may find purchase with some younger viewers, but it’s generally disappointing, not least because Josh Gad has a proven track record of strong turns in voice roles (who doesn’t love his Olaf in ‘Frozen’?).
‘Journey’ marks the film debut of veteran TV director Gail Mancuso, who tidily replicates the look established by Lasse Hallström on the first film. Mancuso doesn’t get a great deal to work with from the script, but she commits to a couple of standout moments with vigour, like a surprisingly intense car crash and a hard-hitting cancer diagnosis. She gets bogged down in the story’s soapy drama and syrupy emotional beats, but it doesn’t seem like the movie’s shortcomings can be pinned on her when they’re so baked into the concept and the screenplay. Dogs may be man’s best friend, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll want to take this journey with one.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out September 15.