For most dog movies, one tragic canine death is more than enough to tug on the audience’s heartstrings, but 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose crammed in four of them, thanks to its concept of a dog’s soul continually reincarnated into new bodies, always dedicated to being the perfect human companion. The emotional manipulation continues in sequel A Dog’s Journey, which finds Bailey the dog (voiced again by Josh Gad) experiencing more lives and more deaths, all while focused on protecting C.J., the granddaughter of Bailey’s most beloved owner, Ethan (Dennis Quaid, returning from the previous movie).
Bailey ended his journey in Purpose on a farm with Ethan and his wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger, taking over for the late Peggy Lipton), and that’s where he finds his purpose in Journey, when Ethan and Hannah take in Hannah’s self-centered daughter-in-law Gloria (GLOW’s Betty Gilpin) and Gloria’s toddler daughter C.J. Gloria is a single mother following the death of Hannah’s son, but she’s not particularly attentive, and she ends up rejecting her family’s help and deciding to raise C.J. on her own. When Bailey comes to the end of his life, as he frequently does in these movies, Ethan instructs the dog to watch over C.J., no matter what.
As Bailey continually dies and is reborn, the movie mostly follows the same structure as its predecessor, although Bailey is far more focused on returning to C.J. (played by Abby Ryder Fortson as a kid and Kathryn Prescott as a teen and an adult) than he is on any other potential owner. He’s by her side through her mother’s neglect, her boyfriends’ mistreatment and her reunion with her childhood friend Trent (Ian Chen as a kid, Henry Lau as a teen and an adult), who’s obviously her soulmate. (Between his efforts with Ethan and Hannah in Purpose and his meddling with C.J. and Trent here, Bailey is basically the dog equivalent of a nosy matchmaker.)
The depiction of Bailey as some sort of immortal dog guardian goes way overboard this time, and the plot goes to extensively contrived lengths to get the dog back together with C.J. each time his life begins anew. Despite living the equivalent of close to a dozen dog lifetimes, Bailey remains annoyingly dim and hyperactive, and Gad’s voice performance is still cutesy and cloying. Prescott brings some genuine emotion to C.J., although her character arc is a collection of clichés, including her vague dreams of becoming a singer-songwriter. Quaid and Helgenberger coast through their roles as the loving grandparents, and Lau (mostly known as a pop singer in Asia) is a blandly supportive love interest for C.J.
Just in case the multiple dog deaths weren’t enough, Journey throws in cancer and alcoholism for maximum melodrama. Like Purpose and this past January’s much worse A Dog’s Way Home, Journey is based on a novel by W. Bruce Cameron, who’s become sort of the John Grisham of dogs, writing multiple bestsellers from the canine perspective. Cameron and the three other screenwriters know exactly how to get dog lovers to cry, and the movie’s animal stars are as cute as can be expected. Wringing tears from animal suffering and distress doesn’t take much skill, though, and the filmmakers (including veteran TV director Gail Mancuso in her feature debut) don’t have any other effective ways of holding the audience’s attention. Whenever things start slowing down, they just kill Bailey again.