I'm a sucker for the recent crop of movies that covers the life of a dog as told through our four-legged buds' symbiotic connection to us humans. I liked the critically panned A Dog's Purpose, praising it for leaning on its schmaltz with a hefty dose of love and compassion for its many canine characters' devotion to making our lives better on this planet. I even enjoyed the now-forgotten A Dog's Way Home. Check out my fawning review of The Art of Racing in the Rain, which I love especially because it doesn't shy away from its strong melodramatic elements.
But schmaltz needs conviction to work. If it's phoned in and lazy, it will just come across as condescending and cheap. That's the case with A Dog's Journey, a direct sequel to the 2017 sleeper hit, A Dog's Purpose. That movie used its central dog-human relationship between a golden retriever named Bailey and his human, Ethan (Dennis Quaid), as a framing device in order to barely escape the trappings of an episodic narrative focused on the soul of the same dog ending up in different vessels and helping people out in different ways. As the "purpose" part of the title indicates, it was a fairly inconsequential, but sweet and harmless study on the myriad of ways dogs shape and enrich our lives.
A Dog's Journey makes the worst possible choice by shifting the focus to the cardboard human characters and relegating Bailey, who's played by three different dogs across three different timelines in the sequel, to the background as an afterthought. The story is basically a series of soap opera premises centered on Ethan's daughter CJ (Kathryn Prescot), as she tries to survive her comically evil mother (Betty Gilpin) and series of abusive boyfriends, until of course she finally recognizes the obvious romantic connection with her BFF, Trent (Henry Lau).
The reincarnation angle is used in confusing ways. In one instance, Bailey's soul enters a dog who lives his entire life without CJ, yet when he comes back to CJ in a different body, the girl is barely a day older. One would imagine Bailey's previous life lasted at least ten years or so, since we're told he dies of old age, so shouldn't CJ be at least ten years older? The last film left off at present time, and here at least around twenty years passes during the story, but the tech and culture stays the same. Of course it's a bit too much to ask sci-fi elements from such a family doggie drama, but at least an acknowledgement that the story takes place in the future could help.
Josh Gad once again voices different incarnations of Bailey, but this time it appears as though the production shot a bunch of b-roll of the dogs and asked Gad to impersonate Bob Saget from America's Funniest Home Videos and make silly sounds that match the dog's random behavior. The cutaways to the dog rarely have anything to do with the content of the scene he's in. In some cases, the tonal difference between the dog acting goofy and the characters going through some heavy tragedy results in unintentional comedy.
A Dog's Journey sports a fairly flat bit of digital cinematography that relies heavily on sepia tones for easy nostalgia. The 1080p transfer captures the film's look in vibrant and crisp fashion.
The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track offers clear dialogue and a surprising amount of surround presence during sections with music. Yet even though it's a 7.1 track, don't expect much in terms of panning, it's a fairly center-heavy delivery otherwise.
Commentary by Director Gail Mancuso: Mancuso goes into great detail about his vision for the film, as well as a lot of production information.
Deleted Scenes: Ten minutes of excised material. The finished film feels bloated enough, so no need for these really.
Gag Reel: This is a lot of fun actually, since watching dogs be dogs and fool around is always a good time.
Working with Dogs: A quick EPK where the cast and crew talk about working with their canine colleagues.
A Dog's Sequel: A manipulative semi-ad for the movie. Why is this here? We have already purchased or rented it.
Everyone's Best Friend: Another cutesy and short EPK bit about the importance of dogs.
A Healing Journey: A quick look at the film's themes.
Scoring the Journey: A 3-minute featurette on the film's fairly generic score.
As banal and lazily manipulative as it gets, A Dog's Journey becomes a glorified Lifetime movie that happens to include random cutaways to a cute dog with a human voice. Stick to the first film instead.