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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



A Dog’s Journey, Review: Dogfather

A Dog’s Journey, Review: Dogfather

However incredible this may sound, Hollywood has made a film in the traditions of Wadia, Devar and Bokadia, Indian film-makers who dealt with themes involving animals, their exploits, their torture at the hands of human beasts and their faithfulness to their owner and his/her family. A Dog’s Journey is not so much about canine exploits as it is about a dog’s faithfulness, with generous aid from the almighty, who has been falsely accused of giving nine lives to cats and a lowly, unitary existence to man’s best friend, the dog.

A sequel to the 2017 movie, A Dog’s Purpose (directed by Lasse Halstrom), based on the book of the same name and dubbed ‘a novel for humans’, this one is based on a novel of the same name, by W. Bruce Cameron, published in 2012, and is just called A Novel. The author was probably 8 years old, playing in the back yard of his house, when his dad opened the gate, and in rushed a 9-week-old Labrador puppy. He fell to his knees and spread his arms, and that dog leaped into them as if they had loved each other their whole lives. It’s a scene that shows up in A Dog’s Purpose. A Dog’s Journey is about a dog, a very, very special dog, that has to be put down due to a tumour, very much like cancer in humans, but one that is reborn over and over again, and remembers each life.

When the film begins, Bailey is living with Ethan (Dennis Quaid), Hannah (Marg Helgenberger). Hannah’s widowed daughter-in-law Gloria (Betty Gilpin) and her toddler CJ (Emma Volk), who was born shortly after Hannah’s son was killed. When petty family tensions boil over, Gloria takes CJ and leaves town. Meanwhile, Bailey has to be put down after being diagnosed with the last stage of cancer. As he dies, Ethan tells him to look after CJ. Ok, so Bailey’s dead…but then….there’s this little girl. Her name is Clarity June Mahoney, who everybody calls CJ, and she is always getting into trouble. Bailey feels that without a dog, Clarity will be lost in the big bad world. And Bailey may be right: Clarity will, as we see, make a lot of bad choices in her life. She really does need a dog by her side, to guide her on her journey through life. And that dog, as it will turn out, is Bailey. Reborn. Not as Bailey, but…hold your breath…Molly, a female.

Molly locates CJ (played, at this age, by Ant Man’s Abby Ryder Fortson; most of  A Dog’s Journey takes place with CJ in young adulthood, played by Kathryn Prescott). Just as Ethan and Hannah feared, life with Gloria is full of neglect and mismanagement, and as CJ moves through her teen years into adulthood, she starts to pick up her mother’s worst habits, including an almost pathological taste in horrible boy-friends.

Cameron co-wrote the screen adaptation, along with Cathryn Michon (Canadian stand-up comic who co-wrote, Cook Off and A Dog’s Purpose, both Cameron projects), Maya Forbes (The Rocker) and Wally Wolodarsky (Maya’s husband and co-writer of The Rocker). It’s all live action—no Disney, no Pixar. That itself gives the film a slightly adult feel, as animation tends to appeal primarily to the under-14 age-group. Yes, there are children in the film, and the dogs speak with a human voice (Josh Gad, who was the dog in Purpose too), but the voice is not of a cartoon or animated character, rather a flattish male, human, in the first person, narrative.

Except for one pivotal trick that pulls out saline from your eyes, the dogs in the film do not really perform for the audience, which is welcome. Sadly, though, clichés abound. How one wishes the writers had found ways to work around the obvious trappings of a dog story, with reincarnations running in sync with the growing up and growing older of the family that hosted it. ‘Some friendships transcend lifetimes’ is a good catch-line, but does it do enough to suspend disbelief about rebirth, and multiple rebirth, at that?

Debutant director Gail Mancuso, who has five dogs and turns 61 this year, began as an usher of several television talk shows, graduated to script supervisor, associate director and finally main director, on series like Friends, Dharma and Greg and Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place. For her film entry, she had to depend on some really gifted dog-trainers, and the results are for all of us to see, spread over 108 minutes. An unusual point-of-view camera angle, on the move, gives the story a grounded feel. Mancuso is able to extract good performances from her cast, except when she is stuck with the uni-dimensional villain of the piece, Betty Gilpin.

Dennis Quaid (64; Breaking Away, Great Balls of Fire!, The Big Easy, The Parent Trap, The Day After Tomorrow, Far from Heaven) as Ethan walks with a gait that is a blend of old age and illness, and he is thoroughly convincing. Marg Helgenberger (60; Tootsie, Erin Brokovich, Wonder Woman) as Hannah, replacing Peggy Lipton in episode 1, and imparts an old age grace and sagacity to her part. Her chiselled features add substance to her persona. Betty Gilpin as Gloria can do little as the woman driven in all the wrong directions by destiny, with predictable results. Abby Ryder Fortson as Young CJ Emma Volk as Toddler CJ and Kathryn Prescott as adult-ish Clarity June CJ, are all charming and humane characterisations. Henry Lau as Trent, an Asian and CJ's love interest, and Ian Chen, another Chinese name, as Young Trent, are completely credible in a track that is delicately handled.

A word about the references to three Indian film-makers mentioned in the first paragraph: J.B.H. Wadia and Homi Wadia were Bombay-based brothers who often produced and directed, among many other fantasy and social subjects, films that featured various animals in key ‘roles’. They worked in the Urdu and Hindi languages and were active till the beginning of the 70s. Sandow M.M.A. Chinnappa Devar was an actor turned producer, who made films in Tamil and Hindi, shot in and around Madras, with star casts, aside animals like elephants and cows. He died in 1978. K.C. Bokadia is a film producer who later turned director. He is now 70 and has major credits in over 40 Hindi films, one of which, Teri Meherbaniyan, was centred around a dog, and Main Tera Dushman, which had an elephant performing key scenes.

A Dog’s Journey puts dogs on pedestals and wants us to believe in them not merely as our pets, but as our guardians. Looking at each other from CJ and Bailey’s respective points of view, we see a young, vulnerable girl, incapable of dealing with the trials and tribulations that life put her through, and a dog that made sure that she survived to make a career by chasing the dream that she wanted to pursue forever. What do you call a man who helps you in this way? Godfather. And when it is a canine with nine (?) lives, who dons on the role of the guardian angel? Dogfather?

Rating: ** 1/2


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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