No one likes to see a dog die. In fact, most people are so averse to even fictional depictions of canine mortality that there’s an entire website devoted to warning viewers away from movies where the dog doesn’t make it. Self-help writer-turned-pop novelist W. Bruce Cameron has made a cottage industry out of making humans feel better about dogs’ relatively short lifespans, a cottage industry that became a film franchise with the release of A Dog’s Purpose back in 2017. That film was followed by the unrelated A Dog’s Way Home in January, and can now boast of a direct sequel, A Dog’s Journey, based on Cameron’s novel of the same name. The sequel develops Cameron’s core premise—that dogs are born to bond with specific humans—into a full-on agnostic belief system, incorporating both reincarnation and an afterlife where good dogs’ souls get to spend eternity romping through sunny wheat fields. Ironically enough, to make this reassuring point, a lot of dogs have to die.
Technically, it’s just the one dog, Bailey, voiced once again by Josh Gad. Bailey’s purpose in the first film was to reunite with his human, Ethan (Dennis Quaid), and as the sequel opens, he’s living his best doggie life frolicking around the farm Ethan shares with his wife, Hannah (Marg Helgenberger). Then two tragedies strike, one right after the other: First, Gloria (Betty Gilpin), the mother of Hannah’s granddaughter CJ (Abby Ryder Fortson/Kathryn Prescott), takes CJ away from her grandparents over an argument about an insurance settlement Gloria received after the death of her husband (and Hannah’s son) in a car crash one month before CJ was born. (There is no family dynamic Cameron cannot make tragic.) Shortly thereafter, Ethan discovers a tumor on Bailey’s stomach, and is forced to euthanize his canine soulmate. As Bailey slips away, a tearful Ethan asks his beloved “boss dog” to protect CJ out there in the cold, cruel world.
The remainder of the film is devoted to Bailey’s lives with CJ as she grows from a neglected 11-year-old to an insecure twentysomething living in New York City. Along the way, Bailey is reborn as a playful beagle named Molly, a lazy mastiff named Big Dog, and a mean little Yorkie named Max, all of whom—spoiler alert—meet their ends at various points throughout the film. That’s fewer dog deaths than in A Dog’s Purpose, at least, and only one of them is truly upsetting: Molly is killed in a crash after a teenage CJ’s car is run off the road by her stalker ex-boyfriend. That makes this film slightly less traumatizing for kids than its predecessor, and slightly more traumatizing than A Dog’s Way Home, which had zero dog deaths and one human freezing to death along the banks of a river.
Stated plainly and out of context, these facts sound morbid and bizarre. And frankly, they’re not much less so in context. A Dog’s Journey ties itself into narrative knots finding ways to incorporate dogs into the storyline, which touches on cancer, alcoholism, and strained parent-child relationships as well as abusive teenage ones. Most bizarre of all, these events are told through Bailey’s childlike eyes, like in the scene where Gloria—an objectively awful parent who slut-shames and fat-shames CJ on the rare occasions when she’s actually home—is described as “smelling stronger than usual” as she’s about to drunkenly unleash a torrent of verbal abuse onto her daughter. These dark scenes are alternated with happy ones peppered with Cameron’s signature dog-isms, humorous asides about butt-sniffing, bacon, and other assorted canine preoccupations. Some of these are actually kind of cute, as when Big Dog characterizes a convenience store as “a house made of snacks,” or when Max jumps up and down saying, “I don’t know why we’re happy, but it makes me happy!” when CJ gets some good news. Just be prepared for the emotional whiplash a few scenes later.
Director Gail Mancuso, a TV comedy veteran, gets the desired effect—as manipulative as it may be—out of both the funny scenes and the sad ones, leading up to a finale that can only be described as weapons-grade tearjerker material. For the most part, Mancuso keeps the film’s technical aspects cheerful and straightforward, only showing off in a pair of transitional morphs and the occasional dog’s-eye-view tracking shot. Her approach reminds the viewer that, for all their movie-of-the-week suffering, these are supposed to be family films—and, to be fair, the human drama of A Dog’s Journey is so superficially and simplistically handled that little ones will probably walk away remembering the cute dogs and poop jokes more so than the death and misery. It’s the grown-ups who might need some healing puppy kisses afterwards.