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Non-Review Review: A Dog’s Journey

A Dog’s Journey is incredibly earnest.

To be fair, it kind of goes with the territory. A sequel to A Dog’s Purpose, the film fits comfortably in the same “narrating baby or animal observes the adult world” subgenre as the Look Who’s Talking films. The basic premise of the film finds a beloved family pet reincarnating over and over again in order to serve as a spiritual companion to a family across three generations. Voiced by Josh Gad across a wealth of breeds, genders and personas, this “boss dog” finds themselves drawn towards a family struggling to hold itself together amid incredible internal tension.

Hardly a crowning accomplishment.

The premise and execution are admittedly very hokey. The characterisation is threadbare. The actors vary wildly in terms of skill. The jokes are often hackneyed and overly familiar. The script is full of strange narrative cul de sacs and tangents that occasionally stall the forward momentum of the film. A Dog’s Journey is an exceptionally tightly (or even well-) constructed film. However, the almost aching levels of sincerity almost hold it together despite these sheering forces.

At the heart of A Dog’s Journey is an incredibly simple-yet-heartfelt idea of the relationship that exists between a dog an it’s owner. Late in the film, one character concedes to another, “It must be nice to have something that loves you unconditionally.” For all the film’s flaws, it never doubts the idea that the love of a dog for its owner (and perhaps vice versa) is truly unconditional and uncompromising, no matter how complicated the world around that relationship might become.

Fields of gold.

There are a lot of very serious problems with A Dog’s Journey. These problems are both large and small, specific to individual scenes and reflective of more fundamental issues. The film’s structure is a weird mess, populated with unnecessary details and convolutions. At its heart, this is the story of a dog that is continually reincarnated to protect and guide the life of a young woman named “C.J.”, but the plot is constantly branching and diverging in strange directions with little motivation or necessity.

There is a section of the film that is given over to the dog’s time as the creatively-named “Big Dog”, who serves as a companion to a store owner in Pittsburg. It is a strange point of focus, given how long the sequence runs. It is an interesting interlude on its own terms, filled with the same basic ideas of the importance of a dog as a faithful companion and many of the same jokes about the animal’s short attention span and appetite. However, in plot terms, it exists for one very short interaction between C.J. and “Big Dog” that could easily have been trimmed from the movie.

Guiding the family through ruff times.

There are other examples of this, including a cancer subplot focused on a secondary character that seems to exist largely as a source of emotional leverage for the film. These moments make A Dog’s Journey seem overly episodic and haphazard, a collection of vignettes in search of a common thread. Watching A Dog’s Journey, there is a sense that there would be a completely different edit of the movie focusing on different beats and events that would flow just as smoothly as the finished cut.

Not only does the film zig and zag, it also jars. Its set-ups occasionally veer into the outright absurd. A Dog’s Journey involves significantly more high-stakes car chases and stunts than the title and poster would lead the audience to suspect. All of this is played painfully straight, reducing sincere and earnest moments to unintentional comedy. There is never a sense in which a producer ever sat down with the script to A Dog’s Journey and dared to ask, “Really?”

A dogged love affair.

Again, this flaw is a strength in its own right. After all, the title A Dog’s Journey suggests an adventure that might be structured around a set of very different events, moving in a clear progression from one to another. There is also a sense in which A Dog’s Journey is attempted to convey the random and arbitrary nature of life itself. Life is often chaotic and unstructured, and stories often serve as ordering principles. There’s a fascinating (if unexplored) tension within A Dog’s Journey between wanting to be a formulaic feel-good movie and a more experimental slice-of-life film.

The earnestness that drive’s A Dog’s Journey is, by turns, its greatest weakness and its greatest strength. In fact, there’s something almost infectiously charming about the energy that A Dog’s Journey devotes to set-up and pay-off within this fragmented and disjointed structure, various narrative decisions only making sense in the context of how they will be used later on to force the plot to contort in a strange direction. There’s something disarmingly heartwarming about a sequence involving Dennis Quaid that can only be described as “Chekov’s Game of Catch.”

Giving the beloved family pet a Deere John.

Again, this simplicity is both a blessing and curse – a source of frustration and warmth. The movie’s characterisation does not really exist. This is most apparent with the character of Gloria, the mother of C.J. Gloria’s husband died while she was pregnant, leaving Gloria to raise her daughter all alone. The film suggests that Gloria was too emotionally immature and too self-involved to be trusted with that responsibility. She was too young and too alone to offer her daughter the love and protection that she needed.

A better film would play this as tragedy, finding the melancholy in these circumstances and mustering some sympathy for Gloria. After all, it is hard to be a parent under the best of circumstances, and especially hard to do it while grieving for a lost love. However, A Dog’s Journey does not do subtlety or nuance. Instead, the film pins its colours to the mast quite early. “You are literally the worst mother in the world,” C.J. accuses Gloria at one point, and the film very clearly agrees.

A curious string of events.

Even Gloria’s defensive response of “actually, that was my mother” feels like a missed opportunity. The film plays as an example of deflection, of Gloria evading any sense of familial responsibility that she has to C.J. Lost in the shuffle is anything resembling character development. Gloria never seems like anything more than a punching bag for the film, a collection of “bad mom” clichés all packaged together and served up for the audience to hate.

This is a shame, as there are a lot of moments when A Dog’s Journey clearly has its heart in the right place. This is most obvious in its portrayal of C.J.’s relationship with men, and the movie’s blunt (and refreshing) refusal to shame her for her choices. Early in the film, C.J. hooks up with a teenager who is clearly bad news. (This being A Dog’s Journey, he might as well have shown up wrapped in police tape.) However, when he assaults her, the movie makes it clear that C.J. holds no responsibility for his actions. When Gloria demands “did you lead him on?”, it is a failure in her character.

A driving force, bringing them together.

A Dog’s Journey is committed and unwavering in its earnestness. This is a film that stops several times to allow Dennis Quaid to converse with the reincarnated spirit of his beloved childhood pet, constantly calling it “boss dog.” At one point, almost smothered under prosthetics, Quaid has to earnestly deliver the line, “There’s a lot you don’t know about that dog.” Any hint of self-awareness or irony would cause the movie to implode, collapsing under its own weight. Instead, the film plays it all entirely straight, even the very silly stuff.

A Dog’s Journey is not a good movie. It is too messy and too clumsy for that. It is, however, a surprisingly effective one. A Dog’s Journey is the relatively rare modern film that believes in unequivocal and unconditional love transcending time and space. In an era of cynicism and irony, there is something engaging in that.

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