“A DOG'S JOURNEY” — 3 stars — Josh Gad, Dennis Quaid, Kathryn Prescott, Henry Lau; PG (thematic content, some peril and rude humor); in general release; running time: 108 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — It’s pretty rare that a sequel improves on an original, but that is certainly the case with Gail Mancuso’s “A Dog’s Journey.”
Based on the W. Bruce Cameron novel, “A Dog’s Journey” is the follow up to 2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose,” which followed a dog named Bailey as it reincarnated its way through a series of lives in order to unite its owner with his long-lost love.
“A Dog’s Journey” picks up where “A Dog’s Purpose” left off, with Bailey (once again voiced by Josh Gad) living the happy life with Ethan (Dennis Quaid) and Hannah (Marg Helgenberger). Hannah’s widowed daughter-in-law Gloria (Betty Gilpin) is also living on the farm, along with her toddler CJ (Emma Volk), who was born shortly after Hannah’s son was killed.
CJ is the light of Ethan and Hannah’s life, and a point of contention in the family since Gloria doesn’t seem to have much of a maternal instinct. Gloria also doesn’t like Bailey much, which casts her as an easy villain in a movie aimed at dog lovers. When tensions boil over, Gloria takes CJ and leaves town, and when Bailey approaches the end of another life cycle, Ethan charges him to always look after Hannah’s granddaughter.
Soon after leaving Ethan and Hannah, Bailey is reborn as a puppy named Molly — the reincarnation concept still allows for gender swaps — and soon enough, the dog (we’ll just keep calling him Bailey) locates CJ (now played by “Ant Man’s” Abby Ryder Fortson). Just as Ethan and Hannah feared, life with Gloria is full of neglect and mismanagement, and as CJ moves through her teen years into adulthood, she starts to pick up her mother’s worst habits, including an almost pathological taste in horrible boyfriends.
Most of “A Dog’s Journey” takes place with CJ in young adulthood (played by Kathryn Prescott), as Bailey works through a variety of incarnations to fulfill his quest. In the meantime, Ethan and Hannah try to reconnect with Gloria, and a childhood friend named Trent (Henry Lau) provides CJ with the closest thing to stability she can find as she pursues her dreams to be a singer-songwriter in New York City.
While the reincarnating dog concept is still front and center, Mancuso’s film puts a lot more time into developing its human story, and that’s what ultimately makes “A Dog’s Journey” work. Too often, “A Dog’s Purpose” felt like little more than a series of vignettes, designed to draw fawning reactions from dog owners with a novelty POV that left its primary narrative as more of an afterthought.Comment on this story
This time around, the balance has shifted for the better. “A Dog’s Journey” is still unabashedly aimed at the sensitivities of dog owners, and even they might tire of Mancuso’s habit of punctuating serious scenes with one-liners from Gad. But the human story leads to some genuinely thoughtful and poignant moments — including one in particular involving a repentant Gloria — that makes it easier to overlook “A Dog’s Journey’s” more kitschy elements.
It may seem a little strange to say the weakest part of a dog movie is the dog bit, but in this case, “A Dog’s Journey” really is a film that people other than dog lovers can truly enjoy.
Rating explained: “A Dog’s Journey” is rated PG for some frightening moments, usually connected to the lead dog’s repeated deaths.