If you’ve ever wanted to explain to a friend why his dog is not the most irresistible, adorable, infinitely forgivable creature alive, spring for an extra ticket to “A Dog’s Way Home.” Most animal movies, no matter how clumsy and cliched, will turn a grouch into a softie, but “A Dog’s Way Home” does the opposite. This film’s canine hero is so unexpectedly annoying that even dog-lovers might cringe.
“A Dog’s Way Home” is a follow-up to last year’s “A Dog’s Purpose,” both based on books by W. Bruce Cameron, who wrote the screenplays with his wife, Cathryn Michon. In this story, a stray pit-bull pup, Bella, is rescued by Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), a youth of indeterminate age who lives with his mother, Terri (Ashley Judd), an Afghanistan War veteran. Despite living in a rental home that bans pets — and in a city, Denver, that specifically bans pit bulls — they take in Bella. The humans in this movie aren’t terribly endearing, either.
When Bella is sent away for her own protection, she escapes and begins sniffing her way home. En route, in a nod to Disney’s “The Incredible Journey,” Bella befriends a cat — actually, a motherless cougar cub. It’s an implausible notion, made more so by the fact that the cub is a computer-animated fiction. Nevertheless, as Bella encounters various humans, the movie puts great emphasis on this unconvincing dog-and-cat relationship. (Funny how skittishly this film handles another nontraditional relationship, the two gay men who temporarily adopt Bella. Oh, relax — they don’t kiss or anything.)
You know those special dogs that have an uncanny intelligence and a sixth sense of what to do in a crisis? Bella is not one of them. Beg her to keep quiet and she’ll bark wildly; train her to flee and she’ll sit paralyzed; call the number on her dog-tag and she’ll accidentally knock away the phone. Bryce Dallas Howard gives Bella the voice of a excitable toddler (“Before I could even think, my paws were moving!”), perhaps to trigger our parental instincts. That’s a miscalculation. Bella so consistently creates her own problems and seals her own doom that she quickly loses our sympathy. At least she doesn’t start the avalanche that buries a passing snow-shoer; the movie blames that on another dog.
Finally, I’ll just go ahead and say the unsayable: Shelby, who plays Bella, is a terrible actress. A nonprofessional discovery making her feature-film debut, Shelby never convincingly conveys an emotion or reacts to an event; she has fewer facial expressions than Steven Seagal. (Director Charles Martin Smith, of “Dolphin Tale,” may share some blame here.) As it happens, Shelby has already left the entertainment industry and now works with autistic children — a happier ending than anything you’ll see in this movie.