‘A Dog’s Journey’ is weapons-grade tearjerker material for dog lovers
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 tumour 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.