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James Dittiger, Columbia Pictures
Bella (Shelby) in “A Dog's Way Home."

“A DOG'S WAY HOME” — 2 stars — Jonah Hauer-King, Edward James Olmos, voice of Bryce Dallas Howard; PG (thematic elements, some peril and language); in general release

SALT LAKE CITY — “A Dog’s Way Home” would have been a perfect fit as a classic cell-animation style Disney film like “The Fox and the Hound” rather than the awkward live action-CGI hybrid we get.

The film, based on the novel by W. Bruce Cameron, follows the adventures of a pooch named Bella as she attempts a 400-mile journey through the Rocky Mountains from Farmington, New Mexico, all the way to Denver, Colorado.

Director Charles Martin Smith’s film begins in Denver as an animal-loving Veterans Affairs employee named Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) rescues Bella from a vacant lot where she had been living with some stray cats. For a time, Bella (with inner dialogue provided by Bryce Dallas Howard) is happy and fulfilled.

James Dittiger, Columbia Pictures
Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) and Bella (Shelby) in “A Dog's Way Home."

Bella is a mixed breed, but has just enough pit bull in her to get in trouble with Denver city law, so Lucas sends her to live with his relatives in New Mexico until he and his mom, Terri, can relocate to a more pit bull-friendly zip code. But before Lucas can make it to Farmington and reclaim Bella, the dog bolts from New Mexico and sets off into the Rocky Mountains for the long journey home.

The plot follows Bella through the wilderness as she encounters a variety of animals and humans and periodic life-threatening situations. At different points on her two-year journey, she is adopted by a gay couple, taken in by a homeless veteran played by Edward James Olmos, and during an extended stretch, strikes up a longstanding friendship with a cougar. But in each case, Bella’s drive to return home to Lucas wins out, and the journey continues.

The central arc of the epic journey has some potential, but it’s the little things that kill “A Dog’s Way Home.” One glaring issue is the persistent narration that continually bogs down the story with excessive exposition. Howard’s voice is a cute match for Bella, but too often the narration overlays action that speaks for itself.

James Dittiger, Columbia Pictures
Bella (Shelby) in “A Dog's Way Home."

The bigger problem, though, is the clunky setup story that initiates and eventually concludes the journey, which leans hard on its message about animal rights. All the convoluted setup around the pit bull law — at one point a character calls it “dog racism” — and the weird demonization of the animal control people is distracting and unnecessary. If the film had adopted a classic cell-animation style, villainizing animal control might have worked, and the narration and animal interaction would certainly have felt more natural.

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For adults who choose to take kids to this one, know that even with a PG rating, “A Dog’s Way Home” does get a little grisly at times, with some bloody encounters involving wolves and a disturbing scene where Bella winds up chained to a dead body (though the character’s death is ambiguous enough that younger audiences may not fully understand what is happening).

Dog lovers and kids might be able to look past “A Dog’s Way Home’s” various shortcomings, but altogether, this is just a decent idea that could have used some more work.

Rating explained: “A Dog’s Way Home” is rated PG for frightening animal encounters and some disturbing content.