Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993)

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Oh, Disney, you cad! How dare you! How dare you remake The Lion King! You have no right, no right to do what you did! Remaking movies is such a colossal waste of time, money, and talent! Never mind making a movie starring those blank, expressionless animals just to be “realistic”! Leave the nineties untouched, a time where we didn’t have to deal with that crap!

So on an unrelated note, today I want to talk about Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey.

In 1963, Disney produced a live action movie called The Incredible Journey, based on the book by Sheila Burnford. That film had narration by Rex Allen, and the animals were a Labrador retriever named Luath, a bull terrier named Bodger, and a Siamese cat named Tao. For whatever reason, the film was re-adapted with different kinds of dogs and cat, with different names, and they were given internal dialogue dubbing instead of one narrator. And most noticeable, the original title was demoted to a subtitle.

I loved animals as a kid. But I only really liked exotic animals. I never got too excited over cats and dogs because everyone had one or the other. Same with movies: there are FAR more animal movies out there starring cats and dogs than there are ones about really any other kind of beast, even animated ones. I guess since audiences relate to stories about their pets more, and the adage about “writing what you know” applies similarly. Plus, training pets is a lot cheaper and safer than most other bigger, more wild animals.

But for all my boredom concerning movies about domesticated animals, this one stood out to me most, and I ended up watching this a million times over, to the point where I can hear several of the film’s lines in my head. I watched this one again recently for the first time in almost twenty years, and here are my thoughts.

The plot: Wizened golden retriever Shadow (Don Ameche), goofball American bulldog pup Chance (Michael J. Fox), and namesake Himalayan cat Sassy (Sally Field) all live under one roof- not always harmoniously – under the care of their respect kid owners, Peter, Jamie, and Hope. Their new father has taken a new temp job in San Fransisco, which means the family of five will be moving to a small apartment for a few months…one too small to accommodate the three pets. The family reluctantly drop Shadow, Chance, and Sassy off at a ranch, and all three pets worry they’ve been abandoned. Well, Shadow and Sassy do. Chance, a former stray, takes it with a grain of salt.

But Shadow unilaterally makes the decision to go home and find Peter. The other two follow and soon find themselves lost deep in the wilderness, encountering raging rivers, unfriendly wild animals, and more, while never losing sight of getting home safe to their kids.

How’s the writing?: As a kid, I had a very limited attention span to movies that weren’t animated. I’d say this had the appeal with the animals, but I remember their personalities mostly, and the A-plot was simple, yet effective.

Whenever the movie switched back to the people, it just bored me. However, as an adult, I better understand what’s going on, but something is amiss. It’s the tension between Bob (The father character) and Peter. Peter is flat-out infuriated that he is forced to give up his best friend for the man who married his mother the day before they head out to the ranch. I can’t blame him. Even if it’s temporary, he’s pretty much forced the kids to give up their pets for months. And worse, the movie contextualizes Peter’s anger as him being unreasonable. His mother even outright says so when after an outburst, she says Bob wouldn’t tell Peter he put up “missing” signs, “after the way you talked to him last night.”

Lady! You and your new husband put your husband’s new job before your kids’ happiness! Judging from the size of the house and that you could hire a chef to cater for your wedding, I’m guessing you’re not hurting for money! If Bob’s temp job pays so much better than what he’s making before, then he can afford a place that can provide space for the pets! And if anyone thinks I’m thinking too simplistically, in the sequel, Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Fransisco, they are living in a roomy two-story house in the San Franciscan suburbs! So no, that means the impetus for the movie was total and utter bullcrap!

Does it give the feels?: It’s a movie starring dogs and a cat. Naturally, there are going to be moments where you’re going to want them to be okay. But the biggest emotional aspect is Shadow.

Shadow was voiced by Don Ameche, who was 85 by the time the movie was released. He uses his rough, calm vocals to an impressive degree, say nothing of the gray-faced golden retriever, real name Ben. His love for his boy Peter is completely unyielding, and his general sense of compassion and concern is his defining characteristic. He can’t seem to understand why Peter is upset and is despondent to be left behind, convinced he is still wanted, unlike Chance. When he and Peter say goodbye at the ranch, it’s heartbreaking. And later, when the trio find a lost girl, Shadow unflinchingly calms her down and stays with her until help arrives.

Anyone who’s ever owned a dog like this understands this bond. Even if you never had a dog with this level of devotion, you understand it, particularly through Shadow’s character.

Who makes it worth it?: As a kid, I loved Chance. He was so goofy and said all sorts of silly things. Between a good script and the comedic timing of Michael J. Fox, Chance was a standout star. But if I’ve lost love for him, it’s probably because of his inherent bitterness. Chance establishes right away he was an abandoned pup before being taken to the pound, or as he calls it, “The bad place”. Thus, constantly brags about his lack of loyalty to Jamie and lives in constant fear of going back. This, along with his impulsive behavior and clumsiness, often ends up causing more headaches than necessary for Shadow and Sassy.

Shadow is the de facto leader, often being the mitigator between Sassy and Chance. But most significantly, it’s his devotion to Peter that gets them through their journey. He is totally unwavering in his beliefs, utterly selfless, and compassionate. It’s his quest, even though Chance is the narrator. His heart is huge and completely endearing.

Best quality provided: The characterization of the trio is some of the best in film history. All three have well-rounded, incredibly defined personalities, and it is impossible to swap out even one line for another with any one of them.  Sassy always has the smart comments at the ready, Chance always has something goofy to blabber, and Shadow always has some pearls of wisdom to divulge.  When you consider how limited the characters are to their real-life faces and body language, it’s that much more incredible you can watch this movie and still feel for them as they get in and out of trouble.

What could have been improved: Aside from the flawed inciting incident, I’m pretty content with this movie, with one minor, nitpicky exception. I can’t really track the logic in the voice overs.

It’s pretty clear the pets communicate via thought, vis-à-vis Garfield. They don’t use their mouths to speak. However, when they have something in their mouths, their speech is muffled. Sassy burps at one point without even opening her mouth. Their barks and meows seem detached from their speech. It’s already hard enough to read their body language and their expressions given their limited range. I guess it follows the same logic of a pet owner when they pretend their pet is talking to them, because I do the same exact thing with my fur babies.

Verdict: This movie is definitely cute. I still find it compelling and adorable and emotional, just not as much as I did when I was younger. Nowadays I keep wondering if the animals were treated okay on set, while still consciously trying to enjoy it through my nostalgia goggles, back when I echoed Chance’s quips like “Arnold Schwarzekitty!” and “Birdzilla!”. At the end of the day, I award this film six porcupine quills stuck in Chance’s cheek out of ten.

Oh hey! The trailer for Mulan looks awesome!

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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