From classic films such as “Old Yeller,” to the seminal dog that saved Hollywood, Won Ton Ton, the genre of “boy/girl and their dog” is a tried and true formula that has been massively successful in ensuring that no audience member should ever have to leave the theater with a dry eye or an empty heart. There’s something about these movies, and more importantly, the way that the average person can empathize so readily with the untainted innocence displayed by canine heroes, that has paved the way for the genre’s resounding success throughout the year.
At the same time, the relatively simple nature and formula of such tales has thus far prevented it from growing into something more, something that goes far beyond the formulas provided by the classics, and breaks new ground into something beyond the conventional boundaries, merging it with some of the best elements of conventional genres. As touching as the prototypical tale of the person and their dog may be, new releases tend to fall victim to this trap of emulation and stagnation, and expectations for new releases, as such, are set considerably low.
That was my train of thought, anyway, stepping into the movie theater to watch “yet another dog movie,” but oh, how wrong I was.
The first readily apparent aspect of this movie that really makes it stand out from the rest is the fact that this is a much more mature tale than the kid-centric narratives that dominate the genre, as it’s based on a true story of two soldiers, human and canine, and their harrowing experiences serving the United States as Marines during a time of war. Specifically, the movie recounts the journey of over one hundred missions in Iraq in which both Megan Leavey and her loyal German Shepard, Rex, saved countless lives by seeking out and eliminating hidden caches of weapons and explosives.
The film pulls no punches when it comes to the harsh realities of war, and as such, the customary tears expected from such movies come not only from the inevitable climax, but also in the several suspenseful life-or-death scenarios that come with such a setting. This adds an extremely interesting twist to the conventional methods of playing with the audience’s emotions because, especially since the movie is based on a true story free of fairy-tale levels of good fortune where good always triumphs over evil, there is always a certain sense of suspense and a sort of empathetic fear.
Having an element of risk and hardship for the characters to overcome may be an essential part of what makes a compelling narrative, but, of course, none of that matters if the characters themselves are not worth caring about. Thankfully, the enthralling true story of Megan Leavey’s life experiences with her beloved partner Rex, along with the tremendous acting provided by the likes of Kate Mara and Ramon Rodriguez, deliver the kind of character development and interaction that will ensure that the viewer will be doing far more than just rooting for the characters to make it through the trials of war okay. You will laugh, you will cry and you will be moved, as this atypical spin on the classics plays out before your eyes, making every penny spent well worth it by the time the credits roll.
Just as Megan’s story is far more than a simple story of a girl and her dog, however, it is also far more than a typical war story. True, the hardships and valor that come with a life of service alongside mankind’s most trusted companions make up much of the narrative punch and take the central spot in a basic synopsis. There is an underlying aspect of the human condition that makes the experience so much more powerful—coping with loss.
Megan did not come to the Marines to be a hero. In fact, Megan didn’t even want to take on Rex as her companion in the first place. Rather, the events that were set in motion, which would change her life in such an immense and spectacular fashion, was the saving grace of her crippling battle with depression and alcoholism following the loss of someone very close to her. Megan is flawed in every sense of the word, nearly unlikeable, in fact, at least in the beginning, but it is the fact that she starts off so flawed, so damaged, that speaks to the message of hope and love that the film conveys. Rex isn’t much better to start off, as he’s given to Megan by his handler as a sort of “last chance” after nearly breaking every bone in his previous handler’s arm and being condemned by vets as untrainable. This isn’t just a movie about a girl and her dog, or even a soldier and her dog; it’s a story about redemption.
That is what makes this story so special, the secret ingredient that forces the audience to feel and care for these characters. Sure, they may be flawed, but who isn’t? By being able to recognize the flaws in such realistically portrayed characters, the kind that could only come from such a movie inspired by true events, the audience gains an aspect of empathy by seeing their own flaws mirrored in some way by the characters on screen. The audience isn’t just rooting for the dog to be left with its owner because “Well, dogs are cute and innocent, so of course!” like so many similar films cheaply rely on for their emotional punch. The audience is moved because these characters and their struggles are something that they can grasp, something they can look to for guidance and inspiration in their own lives, and something that provides real conflict, along with a resolution that will leave even the most battle-hardened veterans with glistening eyes.
It’s alright to be skeptical of that last part. Hell, as a twenty-three year-old man that has seen “Homeward Bound” more times than I can remember without shedding a single tear, I would have liked to believe I would be the manly exception to the rule. I thought that this movie would have nothing that I haven’t seen before, but even I can admit I was wrong, and if you go into this with an open mind, I’m willing to bet that you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise as well.