[su_dropcap size=”5″]I[/su_dropcap]t was spring 2003 when I adopted a seven-week-old border collie. She seemed to have an old soul, so I decided to name her Gladys. Border collies have a reputation as maniacal geniuses, but Gladys grew up and chucked that reputation out the window. She was a treat-devouring, TV-watching diva, and we loved her as much as any dog who ever lived. Gladys had been gone for over a year when my mom offered my wife and I a new puppy for Christmas. It was a real debate, as the hole left by Gladys was still very real. We decided to go ahead, and picked out another border collie named Eddie. He looks like Gladys, so much that they could be siblings, but that’s where it ends. Eddie is frantic and joyful. He bounces as if built on springs. If face licking were an Olympic sport, Eddie would be somewhere on the medal stand. And we love him as much as any dog who ever lived.
I touch on this story, because I believe there’s an unspoken understanding between pets and their owners. Unless you own a parrot or a sea turtle, there’s a good chance you’ll be there for the beginning and end of their journey in life. (Can you own a sea turtle, by the way?) There will never be another Gladys, and someday there will never be another Eddie. On a superficial level, A Dog’s Journey plucks the heartstrings of dog-lovers like a skilled harpist. It’s well-acted, perfectly-adequate hokum. Unfortunately, it’s also my opinion that this movie cheapens the experience of owning a pet by depicting a title subject who survives many lifetimes.
A maudlin sequel to A Dog’s Purpose, this story begins with Ethan (Dennis Quaid) and Hannah (Marg Helgenberger), an older couple who seem so blandly All-American that I half expected baby Kal-El’s spacecraft to crash-land on their farm. Kind and gentle, Ol’ Ma and Pa Kettle care for their widowed daughter-in-law Gloria (Betty Gilpin) and adorable granddaughter CJ (Kathryn Prescott and Abby Ryder Fortson play her at different ages). Also present for this Norman Rockwell painting is Bailey, Ethan’s redoubtably loyal St. Bernard mix. Josh Gad provides cutesy-poo narration for Bailey’s guileless personality. Trouble brews on the farm when boozed-up Gloria starts to act like an absentee Mimosa Mom. Ethan and Hannah offer to care for CJ while Gloria dries out, but Gloria interprets this as both a rebuke of her parenting and an attempt to wrest her daughter away for good. Gloria yanks CJ away from her grandparents and barrels toward the horizon, but not before Ethan entrusts a dying Bailey to keep a watchful eye on his granddaughter.
That’s where I officially stopped buying into this movie: Bailey gets reincarnated as a female beagle named Molly, with the same male narrator. He finds a way to get adopted by CJ, and takes care of her while Gloria gulps Chardonnay and humps her way around the suburbs. I suppose the movie wants it to be comforting that Molly is really Bailey in a different body, but I found it to be more off-putting than anything. It’s just too bad the story doubles down on this awkwardness by having Bailey reincarnated several more times, eventually finding his way to CJ all over again.
Amidst all the wrongheadedness, there are a few things to enjoy here. Quaid is an old pro, and he brings some Wrangler-casual charm to his gravelly-voiced Marlboro Man. Helgenberger, stepping in for the late Peggy Lipton, does a good job quivering her lip and clutching her chest when overcome with emotion. Prescott finds the right notes as a neglected latchkey kid, as does Henry Lai, as her long-suffering crush. The cinematography is eye-catching when it dwells on those golden wheat fields, and the music gives us the appropriate level of corniness. If nothing else, this is a pleasing film to watch on a technical level.
We live in an age where rich people drop stacks of cash to clone their pets. Much to their owners’ chagrin, these animals often turn out to be completely different beasts, despite sharing the exact same DNA. They can eat the same kibble from the same bowl, play in the same yard, walk in the same neighborhood on the same leash, and still be nothing like the creature that predeceased them. If anything, this confirms that there is something special to our individuality that cannot be duplicated by science. We are all unified by our uniqueness, like snowflakes destined to melt on warm ground. A famous quote says that meaning can be added to anything by accepting its temporary nature. There is some poetry in the knowledge that even the selfless, undiluted love of a dog can’t last forever. A Dog’s Journey tries to cheat its way around this fact, and it undercuts the entire movie.
Rated PG. 109 minutes.