‘A Dog’s Way Home’ Recounts a Dog’s Incredible Journey Back to Those Who Love Her

Nothing is a greater testament of a dog’s loyalty to his humans than those tales of separated pets who undertake long journeys accompanied by nothing more than a strong instinct to find their loving families. It’s a popular and effective premise for a heart-wrenching excursion into what degree that animals will seek out their families and families seek out their pets. Following in the footsteps of the greatest lost animal tale of all, Disney’s “The Incredible Journey,” is “A Dog’s Way Home.”

This particular wandering pet is named Bella. Bella is part pit bull, a fact that will return often to haunt her. Born feral in a hidden community of wild cats and dogs, Bella loses her mother to a particularly vile bully of an animal control officer (John Cassini). Ultimately raised by a feral mother cat, Bella is taken in by Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), an animal rescue sort of guy who lives with his mother Terri (Ashley Judd), a veteran of the Iraq War and presently in therapy. Lucas has a girlfriend named Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) who works at the same V.A. Hospital that employs Lucas. And all is happy between them.

But Chuck, the same vile animal control officer that stole Bella’s mother away, has set his sights on Bella. Should Bella chance to be outdoors, Chuck will be there to impound her, backed by a squad of armed Denver police officers. It would appear that in Denver, the police have little else to do but provide backup for dogcatchers, and dogs and their owners have no right to appeal.

To keep Bella safe, she is moved to Farmington, New Mexico to live with relatives. It is only temporary, only long enough for Lucas and Mom to move outside Denver city limits.

It will come as no surprise to fans of these films that on the very day Lucas and Olivia drive to New Mexico to retrieve Bella, Bella runs away. Early on, Lucas taught Bella the command to “go home.” It is a little late, but Bella is now responding to that command.

But now, “going home” entails 400 miles of grueling travel through the amazing vistas of the Colorado Rockies. Along the way, Bella will encounter packs of vicious wolves, a kind young gay couple, an exploitive homeless vet and an orphaned puma cub. Bella has an affinity for cat families being raised in part by Mother Cat. She adopts the cub that she names Big Kitten, because she’s pretty big for a cat. On her journey, Bella becomes a part of many adoptive families to ultimately leave in search of her original home.

Based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron and directed by “American Graffiti” actor Charles Martin Smith, “A Dog’s Way Home” is guaranteed to provoke tears, and the screenplay is designed with that in mind. It’s a family film and appropriate for younger children, and as such, the story’s ties to actual nature are tenuous. The animals in the wild are animated, which perhaps means greater characterization and more personalized interaction between cougar and dog. But how would director Martin’s experience with CGI wolves in this film compare to his work as actor with the real thing in the powerful “Never Cry Wolf”?

“A Dog’s Way Home” is a child’s entertainment. It is warm and funny. Bryce Dallas Howard as the voice of Bella brings a sweet innocence to the dog’s dilemmas.  Shot on actual locations from northern New Mexico through the Colorado Rockies, the movie is filled with stunning backdrops. The story may at times be a bit of a reach, but it all comes together in the end in a emotionally satisfying and heartwarming resolution, further proof that that the best people you know are dogs … and cats.

A Dog’s Way Home” opens Jan. 11 in theaters nationwide.