"A Dog's Journey" tries to prove that it's possible to make an uplifting movie in which a dog dies — repeatedly. That's not a spoiler; it's literally the plot of the film.
"Journey" rests on the same conceit as its 2017 predecessor, "A Dog's Purpose." In both films, based on best-selling books by W. Bruce Cameron, a dog named Bailey (voice of Josh Gad) gets repeatedly reincarnated, each time to protect someone important. The previous film focused on a character named Ethan. Now it's Ethan's granddaughter, C.J. (Kathryn Prescott.)
We first meet her as a toddler (Emma Volk), living with her grandparents (Dennis Quaid and Marg Helgenberger), whose son was killed in a car accident before C.J. was born. The son's widow Gloria (Betty Gilpin) live with her daughter C.J., rather tensely, on the family farm. When a major conflict arises, Gloria and C.J. head to Chicago, where Gloria is planning to pursue a singing career. Through the course of four lifetimes and various dog breeds, Bailey is always there to protect C.J. from danger, including a less than desirable home life and abusive boyfriends.
There's nothing wrong with a good cry at the movies. But a bad cry is emotionally manipulative and, well, just mean. "A Dog's Journey" is the latter.
Because the story belongs to Bailey, we have to watch him die, over and over. At these moments, it feels like the entire film is structured to get the audience from one death to another. Although there are some very nice scenes between Gloria and the adult C.J. (as well as with the tween version, played by Abby Ryder Fortson), how can we appreciate them if there's always this looming sense of doom?
Is it even possible to enjoy Gad's charming performance while we're waiting for the next time Bailey goes to doggy heaven, a place that looks like the field Russell Crowe glowered over in "Gladiator"?
A movie should earn our tears. And it does that by giving us complex characters to whom we can relate. It doesn't have to take long: "Up" did it in a near-silent opening montage that covered the span of a married life in just minutes.
Here, nearly all the characters are underwritten. When it comes to Gloria, it's just vicious. Gilpin manages to add some nuance in early scenes, where it's clear that her anger and selfishness come from grief at the loss of her husband. But eventually, the script falls back on an old trope: She's a bad mother because she drinks wine (admittedly too much), wears leather pants and has her own headshots hanging on the wall.
There are laughs; many of them come from the fact that dogs sniff rear ends and relieve themselves in inappropriate places. Cleverer moments show up from time to time, though they're few and far between.
"A Dog's Journey" plays on one of the rawest nerves humans have: the one triggered by our bond with dogs. (If you want to add tension to any scene, just put a dog in jeopardy).
The love we share with our canine companions is one of the simplest emotions there is, and to build an entire film around manipulating that love is lazy storytelling. If you want to cry at the movies, "A Dog's Journey" will achieve that. If you want to have a satisfactory cry, one that comes from empathy and not cheap emotional manipulation, stay home and watch "Up."