Cinematic Releases: A Dog’s Journey (2019) Reviewed

It is impossible to come out of A Dog’s Journey without wanting to immediately hug every dog you’ve ever had touch your life, however briefly – it is a film wherein the very premise requires that the dog dies, but in doing so, illustrates themes of perseverance, purpose, and the bonds that lead people to where they are meant to be in life.

A Dog’s Journey is the sequel to 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose, picking up with Ethan (Dennis Quaid) and Hannah (Marg Helgenberger) becoming grandparents to their deceased son’s child Clarity June (“CJ”), a curious toddler who immediately becomes the focus of narrator-dog Bailey’s life. Bailey, who is voiced by Josh Gad, is the dog-spirit who has followed Ethan throughout his life, and he is charged by “his person” to protect CJ when her headstrong mother Gloria (Betty Gilpin) moves her away from the family farm to pursue her music career. As CJ (Kathryn Prescott) grows up, she encounters the dog each time he is brought back into a new body, trying to fulfill his purpose to protect her and guide her to where she needs to be in life. (Bailey is reincarnated as four different dogs in this film, but he always defines himself by this name, so that is the one I’ll use to refer to him in this review.)

The idea of “purpose” is a strangely human one, especially when attaching it to animals; still, A Dog’s Journey makes a good case for the idea that purpose exists in the souls of animals as it does in those of humans. Bailey is steadfast in his journey to be with CJ, always finding her just when he’s supposed to, helping her through the roughest parts of her rocky childhood relationship with her alcoholic and selfish mother, her troubled adolescent relationships and her shaky foundation as a young adult trying to break out of her shell in New York City. The dog Bailey already knows his purpose from the very start, and he never wavers from it. His directive spans his various lifetimes, and he has zero uncertainty about it throughout.

It is the human focus of the film whose faith in purpose falters time and again. She flounders through her youth, yearning to be a successful singer-songwriter while lacking any real confidence in her own abilities. She struggles to understand the world and her place in it, even as the various dogs she encounters through the years (who are all, unbeknownst to her, the same dog) do their best to point her in the right direction. Bailey may be the one who holds the narrative together, but CJ’s is the real journey – and while it seems inevitable that she will succeed with the help of her canine guardian angel, there are some genuinely sweet moments and gentle humor that guide the story forward.

A Dog’s Journey, like its predecessor, is a typical “feel-good” film, and it sticks to that scope with faithful, if predictable, stoicism. It doesn’t really say much that the original film didn’t say, and there are moments that feel contrived to push the emotional boundaries of a movie like this. But at its heart, the film celebrates the kind of loyalty we attribute to dogs in particular – the very idea that those who love dogs will have a particular dog-spirit watching over their lives, affecting direction and outcomes, is a comforting one to those who give their time to these animals especially. It reminds us that so many things that seem unrelated can, in fact, be connected in vital ways; even the inconsequential meetings CJ has with various canines throughout her life end up leading her to the heart of her personal doggie champion, whose greatest desire is for her to find content fulfillment. It doesn’t delve into the darker side of human growth as much as the W. Bruce Cameron novel on which it is based, but its narrative is clear and steady enough.

There is nothing really unique about A Dog’s Journey, or in how it gets its characters to their preordained conclusions – benign feel-good pet movies are a dime a dozen, and they all essentially have the same themes and tear-jerking scenes. Even the use of a dog’s perspective to push the narrative in a certain style isn’t really new; there are films which have done it better and to greater effect. But CJ is likable enough, and Bailey, in all of his various bodies, is a pure and devoted presence throughout the film, so it works well enough for its genre. It doesn’t pretend to be deeper than it is; it revels in the simple joys and temporary lows as they might occur through the eyes of a dog. Predictable and sentimental as any other film of similar ilk, but spirited, sweet, and optimistic to the last, A Dog’s Journey may not say much we don’t already know, but it will encourage us to cherish the true dedication, the uncomplicated soul, and the unconditional love that springs from every pet that touches our lives. It will remind us that some bonds are so strong that even death cannot define them, and suggest that some creatures – human and otherwise – are bound by singular purpose, against which nothing will prevail. 

- Dana Culling