To be honest, I’m not someone who pays that much attention to new releases – I prefer watching movies alone, in my house, at least five years after they were showing in theaters. But my eagle-eyed supervisor noticed that “A Dog’s Way Home” reminded her of another film I’d once written about, “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” on my retired Bad Movie Den series, and she was curious to know more about how the two might be similar. With that in mind, I set out to my local movie theater for an afternoon showing of the film. So, here’s how it compares to “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.” Just a warning: this article will contain spoilers for both movies.
“Beverly Hills Chihuahua” has a cast of both canine and human characters. The two leads, Chloe (dog) and Rachel (person) each have their own fatal flaw – shallowness and irresponsibility, respectively. While the film is largely about Chloe’s wild and wacky adventure through Mexico, I’ll give credit where it’s due: there is some believable character development. Chloe’s exposure to poverty makes her see how vain she’s been, and Rachel realizes she kind of sucks for losing her aunt’s dog and needs to grow up a bit. The two also go from adversaries to buddies by the end of the movie.
On the other hand, “A Dog’s Way Home” is all about the animals. There are humans in it, but they primarily exist to facilitate the story of Bella, the puppy protagonist, or make wider statements about society. For example, Bella’s owner is Lucas, who really, really loves his dog and… doesn’t have a lot of traits beyond that. His mother, another major figure in Bella’s life, has a bit more complexity to her. These characters are certainly likable, they just aren’t extremely memorable. My co-watcher, the heroic Jared Saigh, was also less than impressed with the humans’ acting – check his full review here for more.
The primary difference between Chloe and Bella is that the former tends to think and act more like a teenaged human, while Bella’s behavior comes across as genuinely doglike. Both of them are frequently bewildered by the situations they face, but Chloe’s reactions have more to do with the naivete of being affluent and sheltered, as opposed to Bella, who has a childlike wonder toward life.
This is by far the biggest differentiator between the two movies. “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” is a family comedy. There are some moments that I could perceive as being frightening to very young kids, but there’s certainly never any real sense of danger. Even during the movie’s insultingly poor portrayal of dogfighting, you never actually believe that Chloe is seriously going to be injured. The film has far more laughs than scary stuff and generally has a lighthearted feeling. “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” does actually make a little effort to highlight some more serious situations – there’s the aforementioned dogfighting scene and also an attempt to depict the grim reality of illegal immigration – but the execution consistently fails to hit the mark, and you wish they’d just go back to the silly jokes, which is what you were really expecting from this flick anyway.
“A Dog’s Way Home” is not a comedy. Humorous moments are rare, in fact, and some of them are likely to go over the heads of younger viewers. I want to emphasize that you should not go into this film expecting something warm and fuzzy, because it is not that. “A Dog’s Way Home” has serious tension running through most of it – even with Bryce Dallas Howard’s pleasant voice narrating all of Bella’s thoughts, the movie makes it clear that all is not well in its world. The film addresses such topics as homelessness, depression among veterans, and corruption in law enforcement, though it’s only sporadically effective. And while Chloe spends most of her time running away from the baddies, Bella gets attacked by coyotes, is hit by a car, and collapses from thirst. These scenes were disturbing for me to watch as an adult, and I can imagine some kids being very upset by them.
Both of these movies explore the consequences of a dog being separated from her owners and then making a way back to them. However, they differ significantly in how they get to that plot point.
In “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” Chloe is left in Rachel’s care after her real owner, Viv, has to leave the country temporarily. Rachel decides to forego her house-sitting responsibility and heads off with her gal pals for a trip to Mexico with Chloe in tow. While the girls get funky at a club, Chloe slips out of their hotel room and onto the street, where she’s kidnapped and taken to the dogfighting ring. After her escape from there, she begins her journey to make it back to Rachel, and by extension, home in Beverly Hills.
Things are a little more complicated in “A Dog’s Way Home.” Bella is born and raised beneath the debris of a building. After her family members are taken by animal control services, she remains there with some cats. Lucas occasionally leaves food for the cats, and one day, Bella impulsively leaps out. Lucas immediately adopts her. A contractor wants to remove the debris and start building on the land, which Lucas and his mother object to, since the cats still live there and the contractor refuses to have them safely removed. After Lucas and his friend Olivia manage to get the building permit canceled, the contractor gets his revenge by calling animal control on Bella. Lucas is able to retrieve her, but the pound attendant tells him that under Denver city law, a dog identified as a pit bull can be euthanized if it prompts two calls to animal control. Lucas and his mom decide to move outside of the Denver city limits, and the aunt and uncle of Lucas’s friend Olivia agree to hold Bella in the meantime. The uncle asks Bella is she’s “ready to go home,” but Bella only understands the “go home” part of it, which she takes as a command and attempts to do.
Both dogs are forced to face the wilds as they try to make their way back and have to overcome a variety of challenges. For Chloe, that’s facing her own vanity and letting go of materialism; for Bella, that’s mainly just trying to stay alive.
While both pups do reunite with their owners and thus complete their missions, “A Dog’s Way Home” has less of a pure happy ending. Chloe returns to Beverly Hills, the dogfighting guys who were chasing her down are arrested, the dogs who helped her on the way are adopted (one is even welcomed onto the police force), she and Rachel both get their guys, and everyone is happy. Bella does get back to Lucas, but many things are left unresolved. First, while she’s on her trek home, Bella is taken in by a couple, who fully intend to keep her as a long-term pet, and even get her a tag with their phone number. When they take her on a walk, she realizes she’s on the right path toward home, and runs away. While this brings Bella closer to her goal, the couple is left believing that their beloved pet dog likely starved to death in the wilderness. The animal control agent who originally captured Bella is taken off the job, and since Lucas and his mother have moved out of Denver, they don’t have to worry about her being recaptured. However, there’s no indication that the unethical law that originally allowed that to happen will be overturned anytime soon, leaving the viewer with the unpleasant realization that many dogs were not as lucky as Bella.
As I mentioned earlier, Chloe acts more like a person than a dog, and accordingly, “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” teaches a lesson more applicable to us humans. Chloe’s brattiness and Rachel’s irresponsible nature are what cause them to become separated, prompting the plot’s main conflict. The film’s moral basically entails that both vanity and carelessness are negative traits because they can lead to such questionable behaviors as judging people by their appearances, having little understanding of how the world operates, and losing things of great importance. The message is pretty easy to uncover and is perfectly wholesome.
The intended message of “A Dog’s Way Home” is, perhaps, a bit more subjective. It certainly makes a statement on the strength of the bonds that can develop between humans and dogs, but it also draws attention to the reputation that pit bulls have as being inherently violent – one character, Olivia, who is black, describes this as “racism for dogs.” Considering the new strides in civil rights that have been made in recent years, it makes me wonder if the filmmakers decided that now was the opportune time to draw attention to the unfair treatment some dogs get based solely on the way they look.
These two films were released 11 years apart, and it’s apparent when you watch them. Some reviewers, including Anna Smith and Brian Orndorf, took issue with the depiction of Mexico in “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” arguing that the movie shows the country as a place full of crime and incompetent police while reinforcing cultural stereotypes about its citizens. It’s up to you how much you will agree with those assessments, of course – just be aware that they exist.
“A Dog’s Way Home,” on the other hand, could be considered a fairly progressive movie. It prominently features two interracial couples and a same-sex couple, and to its credit, the film never treats them as anything out of the ordinary, which is exactly how it should be done. Again, only you can decide whether or not this is a concern of yours when it comes to watching movies, but it is another difference I wanted to mention.
Both movies also feature a lot of CGI. In “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” the dogs’ mouths are animated as they speak to each other. It’s a little creepy at first, although over time it stops being unnerving and starts just looking ridiculous. There are also a couple of fully-CGI characters, which were a bit too uncanny valley for my taste. In “A Dog’s Way Home,” we can hear Bella’s thoughts, but on-screen, dogs just bark at each other. However, Bella also gets a fully-CGI companion in the form of a cougar she befriends. While the graphics are somewhat smoother in the newer movie, CGI still looks like CGI. I guess they couldn’t very well have used a real cougar, though.
“Beverly Hills Chihuahua” and “A Dog’s Way Home” are really quite different. Although their plots have some basic characteristics in common, the experience of watching the two isn’t all that comparable.
“Beverly Hills Chihuahua” is strictly feel-good stuff. To be honest, it’s not a particularly well-made movie – there’s a reason why it’s on the IMDB Bottom 100 list, after all (it’s #88 as of this writing). The Rotten Tomatoes page describes it as “little more than disposable family entertainment,” and that’s exactly how I see it being deployed. It’s perfect for when you need to keep some kids occupied for a bit while you take care of your biz or just enjoy some alone time. They’ll enjoy the cute dogs, laugh at the jokes, and probably not notice (or care) how weird the CGI looks.
If you plan on showing “A Dog’s Way Home” to kids, though, I would encourage you to sit and watch it with them. First, there are several points where I can foresee them being upset and wanting someone there to comfort them, but I also expect you’ll have to answer a lot of questions. Young viewers may not immediately know how to process things like what it means for an animal to be euthanized or the sight of a homeless person dying. “A Dog’s Way Home” is by no means feel-good; even with its happy ending, I, as an adult viewer, felt slightly rattled coming out of the theater. I’m glad I saw this movie, but it’s not one I want to watch again.
One thing I can say for sure? Both of these movies make me want to give my own dog a big hug.