The 2017 January release A Dog's Purpose, based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron (who co-wrote the script with four other people, among them Cathryn Michon), and produced by Gavin Polone, is a movie in which the entire concept of the plot hinges on watching the same dog die five different times as it keeps getting resurrected, all while it keep asking existential questions in the bubbly idiot voiceover of Josh Gad, who uses the same voice when making jokes about how the dog cannot comprehend basic necessary facts about the world. The 2019 January release A Dog's Way Home, based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron (who co-wrote the script with Cathryn Michon), and produced by Gavin Polone - and despite this, it is not in any way related to the earlier film - showcases no dog deaths at all, nor ontological crises, and yet it is somehow even bleaker than its can't-call-it-a-predecessor. It is a movie in which the inciting incident of the plot involves a developer hoping to bulldoze an abandoned house, crushing into bloody death all of the kittens who live in its foundation, and the film never does quite get around to clarifying that the developer (who seems to want to do this in part for the extreme pleasure of murdering kittens) doesn't get to do that. That's not even close to being the most disturbing thing that happens over the course of the film's running time.

Take out the kitten crushing, the arbitrary cruelty of life and the selfish rotten people in it, and the constant confrontation with the fact that we must all repeatedly say goodbye to the ones we love most, and what we have left is a fluffy, silly adventure-comedy about a sweet idiot dog named Bella, who has the misfortune to be born a pit bull blend in Denver, a city with a ban against that breed. The film is, among its many guises, a polemic against breed-specific ban. "It's like racism for dogs!" says one character in disgust at learning about the law, and, I mean, sure, but it's a remarkably tone deaf thing to put into a movie released in this Year of Our Lord 2019. And of course the character who says this is an African-American, and of course she also happens to be the only African-American character with any real presence in the plot.

Bella narrates the film in the one-note cheerful tones of Bryce Dallas Howard, whose context-indifferent chirping makes Gad's performance look like the lost recordings of Orson Welles. And so the film's story of corrupt land dealings fought by animal activist Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), a med student and the adult son of Terri (Ashley Judd), a war veteran with such terrible PTSD that she cannot live alone, is filtered through the malapropism-littered narration of an animal whose inability to comprehend what humans are doing is stripped of any hint of whimsy, and just makes her look stupid. And kind of the point is that dogs are stupid in their single-minded desire to please the nearest human, which seems like an extremely mean thing to present as the primary theme of a movie whose target audience is solely made up of over-the-top dog lovers. I wonder how this would have worked  in prose - I do not wonder enough to read the book, but I do wonder - where our perspective could be limited to Bella's. Instead, we get to see everything that's going on around her, and of course we understand it much better, and so our protagonist reads as an idiot whose suffering is almost entirely born of her ignorance. Not a great approach for a bouncy family movie.

At any rate, Bella is sent to live in Farmington, New Mexico, at the home of relatives of Olivia (Alexandra Shipp), Lucas's girlfriend, until such time as Lucas and Terri can get a house outside of the Denver city limits (this takes them no effort, despite the suggestion that they are teetering on the poverty line). But she has, through trauma (nothing happens in this film unless through trauma) encoded the words "go home" as a powerful, irresistible command. So when the man watching her says "you get to go home tomorrow", Bella leaps into action, and starts wandering through the Rocky Mountains for what ends up being well over two years, after having missed Lucas in his car by about six feet. Many adventures befall her, all of them involving unnatural amounts of suffering, except for the one where she raises a CGI cougar up from a CGI kitten. There are, of course, good pragmatic reasons not to use an actual cougar; the capacity to have it make big cartoon facial expressions was a bad reason, and the stiff, vinyl-looking fur of the creature ruins all of the moments of sweetness and bonding between the real dog and the animated "cat".

Just your basic riff on The Incredible Journey, then, except that for whatever reason it's much worse. Well, I say "whatever reason". The reasons are right there on the surface: Howard's monotonous line delivery is a big one, the film's inability to prevent Bella from seeming to be, just, so dumb is another, and the total inability to manage tone is a very crippling third. Bella's journey involves some extremely horrible events, the most horrible of which is so delectably misguided that I almost hate to spoil it: through a couple of the most contemptuous plot contrivances, Bella ends up chained to a homeless veteran played by Edward James Olmos (who needs to fire his agent right now), who dies of exposure, leading the dog to just sit there confused and sad as she almost dies of dehydration, with a mountain stream just barely out of reach. When the vet dies, Bella voiceovers that she sat next to him as the warmth drained out, until he wasn't there anymore. I don't know what kids this movie thinks it's for, but they're going to be fucked up.

Anyway, stuff like that - and while that is easily the most garish plot development, it is definitely not the only unnecessarily bleak plot development - has to go hand in hand with Bella's goofy, ostensibly funny way of talking, and the peppy song cues - such bad song cues in this movie - and a general tone of beautiful landscape-driven adventure. Director Charles Martin Smith is a specialist in. corny, shitty movies about animals: Air Bud was his, as well as the rightfully forgotten Dolphin Tale. A Dog's Way Home shares those movies bad habits of cloying reaction shots of animals and a supremely lazy habit of using overplayed songs to enforce a feeling of jollity upon us, but neither of those had the litany of cruelties that this movie metes out, and Smith is entirely unprepared to know what to do with it. At least Lasse Hallström, who directed A Dog's Purpose, had years of experience using dappled lighting and naked pleas for sentiment to body-slam a viewer into crying; A Dog's Way Home is blatantly unsure how to deal with sentiment, and thus keeps shifting from frothy adventure into misery with no warning, and no shift in its visual strategies, so the thing looks the most unbearably sad sitcom from the 1990s. It is not quite with merit - the dog playing Bella is cute, and there's an inherent appeal to movies about animals that end with the sort of stuff that this film places into its last five minutes - but those merits are absolutely not worth the shrill humor, and the awful CGI, and the profound morbidity, and...