James Dittiger/Columbia Pictures
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January 11, 2019 at 02:00 PM EST
We gave it a B-

Is there any subgenre that’s more designed to put a lump in your throat than the dog-trying-to-find-their-way-home movie? If there is, I haven’t met it yet. So one walks into A Dog’s Way Home already armed with the knowledge that they’ll be reaching for the Kleenex before it’s all said and done. But beyond that Pavlovian response, the question remains: Is it any good? Well, yes and no.

Directed by Charles Martin Smith, who in his previous life as an actor starred in one of the all-time great nature adventures, 1983’s Never Cry Wolf, the new family-friendly film is heartwarming, mildly funny, and occasionally thrilling without ever being anything more than just fine. It knows precisely what you want from the sort of movie that it is and more or less gives it to you – even if it comes off more like a slightly cut-rate Hallmark Channel production than something you’d pay a premium for in a theater.

The four-legged heroine of the film is Bella (voiced with naïve chipperness by Bryce Dallas Howard), an adorable pit-bull mix who we first meet as a stray pup living under an abandoned house with a litter of kittens. That’s where Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), who works at a VA hospital, finds her and decides to bring her home to his Afghan War vet mom (Ashley Judd) as both a family pet and a dose of cuddly, rambunctious therapy. The only snag (apart from a closet full of chewed-up sneakers) is that the city they live in, Denver, has a strict no-pit bulls ordinance. So just when Lucas and Bella become inseparable, they’re torn apart.

Bella is sent off to live with a friend’s relatives in New Mexico. But Bella misses Lucas (and his cheese treats) and decides to take off and find her way back to him. Cue a collective “Awwww”. Like Disney’s classic, The Incredible Journey, A Dog’s Way Home is an event-packed canine odyssey, where Bella forms friendships (with a phony-looking CGI baby cougar) and faces threats (an avalanche, packs of wolves) while finding her way back to the loving arms of her human companion. And for the most part, the mix of outdoor adventure and feel-good sap makes it zip right along (although not without a couple of moments that may be too scary or intense for younger kids).

I don’t need to tell you how it all ends. Trust me, you already know. But surprises aren’t why we go to see movies like this – even ones as affably mediocre as A Dog’s Way Home. We go to have a few laughs, a sniffle or two, and to be reminded once again of the unwavering loyalty of man’s best friend. Now if someone would please pass a tissue, I’ve got something stuck in my eye… B-

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