When Bailey the dog (voice of Josh Gad) passes on, his owner Ethan (Dennis Quaid) hopes that he'll find his way to his step-granddaughter, CJ (Kathryn Prescott), when he reincarnates as various dogs throughout her life.
The central premise of 'A Dog's Purpose' was that dogs, it seems, reincarnate and follow owners throughout their life - guiding them to find their purpose in life, whether it's being a police officer, finding your lost love, or in 'A Dog's Journey', reuniting friends and sniffing out troubled relationships. From the very get-go, 'A Dog's Journey' doesn't attempt to even unpack or examine the idea of a dog being able to reincarnate or the mystical bounds of life and death.
Instead, Josh Gad's bubbly voice happily narrates the process of farting like a dog, being nursed, taking a poop everywhere, and just the general enjoyment of being a dog. Dennis Quaid returns for the threequel - 'A Dog's Way Home' earlier this year was a spin-off sequel in the supposed shared universe of reincarnating dogs - and introduces Bailey, voiced by the aforementioned Josh Gad. Dennis Quaid's character lives inside what can only be described as an advertisement for comfortable jeans or possibly some kind of ED drug, where everything is bathed in gold and everyone's laughing.
These laughs disappear when 'GLOW' alum Betty Gilpin has to take her young daughter home after a disagreement with Quaid, her on-screen mother Marg Helgenberger, and - nuzzling his way in there - a dog voiced by Josh Gad. When Gilpin's character decides to raise their young daughter alone and away from the endlessly earnest confines of their rural home, it becomes clear that having a dog in the daughter's life is a good thing.
With four - count them, FOUR - credited screenwriters on 'A Dog's Journey', you'd think they would be able to come with a remotely original idea in their script. Alas, no, as it cycles through just about every soap opera storyline - evading amnesia, secret marriage / affair and a Joan Collins-type - with reasonable degrees of success. There's the dangerous boyfriend, the ups and downs of a singing career, mother-daughter struggles, the whole gamut of emotionally gut-wrenching moments that you draw upon when you want to zero in on people's tear ducts.
Clearly, 'A Dog's Journey' cannot be approached with this kind of cynicism. How could it? It's so delightfully earnest in its approach that you can only marvel at how surface-level it all is. Trying to critique this movie is like attacking a cup of milky, warm tea. It isn't trying to be anything other than what it is, you're as familiar with it as anything, and it's all done so satisfactorily that you can't help but be won over by its simplicity.
Josh Gad taking the form of a Beagle or a Yorkshire Terrier doesn't seem to wear thin, and while Betty Gilpin and Kathryn Prescott wrestle with some clunky lines of dialogue and industrial-grade schmaltz, you come away from 'A Dog's Journey' neither elated nor dejected - but warmly reminded of the familiar company of dogs, and how we're all the better for having them lie down beside us.