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Saturday, May 18, 2019

A Dog's Journey

A Dog's Journey is basically pure audience manipulation, and it never once apologizes for it.  But you know what?  Sometimes I can enjoy that.  I am not made of stone.  Yes, this movie can easily be derided for being sappy and cornball.  But, it must be said that it is effective.  I smiled a number of times, I was touched during certain moments, and even though I knew the movie was bending over backwards to make me fall in love with it, I found myself unable to resist. 

The movie is a follow up to 2017's A Dog's Purpose, and should not be confused with A Dog's Way Home from back in January.  All of these films (including this one) are based on novels by W. Bruce Cameron.  The difference is that Purpose and this one are directly connected, whereas Way Home was an unrelated spin off.  What the stories do have in common is that they are told from the point of view of a dog.  In a book, I can see this working, but in a movie, this means we get an unnecessary and unwanted voice over narration, where a celebrity reads their lines in a cheerful and somewhat cloying voice whenever the dog is on the camera.  Just like in A Dog's Purpose, Josh Gad provides the dog's voice over, and he relentlessly comments on everything from a dog's perspective, saying things like, "I don't like cats" or "I wish this bed was made of bacon".  His narration is often obtrusive, and the movie would be better off without it.

Regardless, here is Gad back once more as the voice of Bailey, a dog who has lived many lives as many different kinds of canines.  Every time he dies, he is reborn as a puppy in a completely different life.  In the first movie, Bailey went through various lives trying to find his purpose, which he eventually learned was to be by the side and look after his original human owner, Ethan (Dennis Quaid, back to playing a nice guy, after an unwise detour into playing an over the top psycho in The Intruder).  As A Dog's Journey opens, Bailey is content living on Ethan's farm, hanging out with his favorite human, and eating freshly dropped food from the table.  However, these is tension in the family home.  Ethan's depressed and hard-drinking daughter-in-law Gloria (Betty Gilpin) decides to take her toddler daughter C.J. away from the child's grandparents after an argument.  Not long after, Bailey grows ill and has to be put to sleep.  Before he dies, Ethan tells the dog to find C.J. and look after her, just like he has been looking after him all this time.

Bailey is once again reborn as a playful beagle named Molly (Gad still provides the voice over for the female dog), and sure enough, a now 11-year-old C.J. (Abby Ryder Fortson) finds and adopts her.  By this point in her life, C.J. is a kind and wise for her years kid who has had to pretty much take care of herself, as mom Gloria is never seen without an alcoholic drink in hand, and is staying out all night with different men.  The remainder of the film follows Bailey through various lives, each one spent tracking down and spending time with C.J., as she eventually grows into a young woman (Kathryn Prescott) who walks dogs for a living, but dreams of performing her own music.  We follow C.J.'s hardships, struggles and successes, all the while Josh Gad keeps on chiming in unnecessarily on the soundtrack, while I kept on wishing that the filmmakers had enough faith in the audience to just let the story play out.

By all accounts, A Dog's Journey is a very odd movie.  It's primarily a cute dog movie, built around jokes about sniffing butts and eating messes left on the carpet.  But, it also is a surprisingly sad and kind of downbeat movie, with its various plots centered on child neglect/abandonment, psycho ex-boyfriends, and even cancer.  All of these serious subjects are seen through the child-like eyes of Bailey, and it really shouldn't work.  And yet, somehow it kind of does.  Director Gail Mancuso, a veteran of TV sitcoms making her feature debut, is surprisingly adept at handling the emotional whiplash the screenplay is constantly forcing upon the audience.  Not so adept that I didn't notice it, but enough that I found myself still able to enjoy it.  I guess the movie is kind of skillful that way.  It's clearly messy and manipulative, but it also works in a weird way.

I think that's because there's enough human drama to carry the film through all of its odd tonal shifts.  I found myself liking and caring about C.J., mostly through the effective performance of Abby Ryder Fortson.  And even if I was not keen on Gad's voice over, the various dogs who portray Bailey in different lives are appropriately cute, and steal more than a few scenes.  As already stated, I am not made of stone.  You go to a movie like this expecting to see a sweet or funny dog, and it provides.  It also gives you some manipulative melodrama to go with it.  The movie is a blatant tearjerker, but it knows what it's doing.  If you don't want your emotions twisted in knots, don't see this movie.  But, I admit, sometimes it's fun to go to the movies for such a purpose.  It's not exactly expertly done, but it's skilled enough that you can still enjoy the experience.

Maybe this is one of those cases where a movie caught me in a good mood, but I honestly enjoyed A Dog's Journey more than I expected.  The movie is heavy-handed, sure, but I was able to go along with it.  Its the kind of movie where its flaws and manipulations are clearly evident, but you don't care, because the movie is still able to cast a certain kind of spell over its audience.

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