Silly me, I had no idea how stupendously successful A Dog’s Purpose was. $205 million made on a $22 million budget? Also: Why did that first movie cost $22 million? I don’t have answers to these questions, but I am here to tell you that if A Dog’s Purpose worked for you, A Dog’s Journey is also obviously going to work for you. People were in tears next to me within 10 minutes of the movie starting! They cried throughout the entire 110-minute run time! Child abuse and parental neglect and familial estrangement and bad medical diagnoses and pushy boyfriends and selfish girlfriends, one tragedy after another, all stacking up in A Dog’s Journey, a movie ostensibly about cute dogs but really about how rough life is, man.
What is A Dog’s Journey? A Dog’s Journey is basically Life Itself, a movie convinced that it is sharing with viewers the Meaning of Life. (A Dog’s Purpose did the same thing, so I shouldn’t be so surprised, I guess, but the content of this film in particular, with its New York City setting and its focus on art and creativity, made me think of the Olivia Wilde/Oscar Isaac tearjerker.) The lessons here are what you would expect: Love is essential, family is integral, follow your dreams, all those messages you find painted in cursive script on those faux-weathered wooden signs in HomeGoods stores. And because four of the five screenwriters from A Dog’s Purpose return for this sequel, some of the content is the same—from the dog shit jokes to the abusive parents—and there’s a familiarity to the storytelling that will be comforting to people looking for a good, manipulative cry.
The film begins again with Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad), who is still living with “my boy Ethan” (Dennis Quaid) and his wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger) on their farm in Michigan, but some years have passed—Hannah’s son Henry got married and then died in a car accident, and his wife Gloria (Betty Gilpin) and daughter CJ (Abby Ryder Fortson), are now living with Ethan and Hannah. Although they are overjoyed to have a granddaughter, Gloria is aloof, rude, and negligent, and in a huff one day, when Hannah offers to raise CJ for her so she can pursue her singing career, Gloria drives off with CJ, vowing to never be in touch with her in-laws again. And so some time later, while Bailey is dying of cancer, Ethan—who knows that his dog has mysterious powers of reincarnation—asks for him to come back and take care of CJ, the granddaughter they’ve lost.
Fast-forward some years later, and of course, this exactly happens: Bailey is reborn as Molly (it is very bizarre to hear Gad say “I wonder if I have a … Nope, I’m a girl this time!”), conveniently in the same town where CJ now lives with the alcoholic Gloria, who spends each night away from her 11-year-old daughter, going out with a rotating parade of men. Molly’s best friend Trent (Ian Chen), who also lives in her neighborhood, adopts Molly’s brother Rocky (no, we don’t hear this dog’s perspective, or any dog aside from Bailey), and for a while CJ is happy, although Gloria continues to keep her apart from her grandparents. And then we jump forward in time again, to when CJ is nearing 18 and planning to leave home, and then again, when CJ is in her mid-20s and has settled down in New York City. Each time, Bailey is there to guide her, mainly because CJ’s life is a mess and this film gives both CJ and Gloria super underdeveloped personalities.
Gloria is just straight-up awful; this movie has no interest in creating any “good” female characters outside of Hannah, whose “goodness” is mostly because she is loved by Ethan; she doesn’t have much depth of her own. Gloria, meanwhile, is an absent mother, a day-drinking fiend, a money-squanderer with an inflated sense of self and no interest in her daughter. And, she doesn’t like dogs! What a monster! And CJ, in her teen and adult years, becomes a woman unable to see the loyalty exhibited by those who love her, instead choosing to plunge headfirst into an escalating series of abusive relationships. Although we’re told CJ is a great singer-songwriter, we never see her creative process or what inspires her until one scene quite late in the film; although we are meant to align ourselves with CJ as the film’s protagonist, she’s mostly a reactive character, responding only to other people’s behavior rather than standing on her own.
Part of this lack of character development could be explained by the fact that Bailey, as a canine narrator, sees things with a mostly childlike perspective, but the movie then heaps on the melodrama plot-wise, making for an uneven balance. There are all those bad parents, and then upsetting medical diagnoses! People die! Dogs die! Stalkers! Men who put their hands on women! Jealous girlfriends! A dangerous car accident! Homelessness! There is so much and the film moves at such a whiplash pace and telegraphs its next moves so thoroughly that nothing here is a surprise, and nothing quite lands with the emotional impact it should have.
With all that going on, well, it’s easy to lose sight of the point of this movie: the bond between a dog and its person, the love and devotion that is present there. Because the movie skimps on showing us who CJ actually is, Bailey’s devotion to her throughout his various dog forms doesn’t really resonate, even as the plot’s machinations have him manufacturing major moments in CJ’s life. At one point, he poops in front of the bathroom door when one of CJ’s emotionally abusive boyfriends is inside, and the guy walks out of the room and steps in it, and the moment is meant to be hilarious! Not at all like that same guy who threatened CJ earlier might then take his anger about CJ’s dog out on her! But that’s the kind of movie A Dog’s Journey is: a series of moments, tenuously connected with little impact or consequence, with Josh Gad narrating the whole thing in an increasingly irritating juvenile tone. It will probably make $300 million.
Image sources (in order of posting): YouTube/A Dog's Purpose, YouTube/A Dog's Purpose, Epk.tv/Universal