“A dog doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor. Give him your heart … and he’ll give you his.” —Owen Wilson, super-successful newspaper columnist in Marley and Me
Without fanfare or a coordinated backroom master plan instituted by a cabal of canine-crazy Hollywood heavy-hitters, feature films about dogs are making money again. Yes, the dog movie is back. Although, back isn’t strictly correct—these man’s-best-friend movies never really went anywhere. There’s always been some dumb reason to fund a low-budget film about a dog learning karate or solving a crime or learning to get along with a cat with an attitude problem. But more specifically, right now, with the emotional finesse of a buzzsaw, films extolling the inherent goodness of dogs are mainstream again. Consider Harrison Ford’s newest venture, The Call of the Wild, in which Ford rolls around in the snow and bonds with a CGI dog, something apparently infinitely preferable to him than playing Han Solo. Or consider the year 2019 alone, in which we bore witness to A Dog’s Way Home, A Dog’s Journey, and The Art of Racing in the Rain, which, altogether, made nearly $200 million!
Why have dog movies become Hollywood’s most viable product other than comic book movies? Well, first of all, and I hope you’re sitting down, people like dogs, and have pretty much always liked dogs, at least for ten thousand years or so. We enjoy the way they bark and bounce around and are graceless and stupid and pure and ebuillent. But dogs are also a window into the human condition. They show us plainly who we wish we were, what we ought to be. They are altruistic, devoted, and loving. They embody the very best traits we only occasionally grasp ourselves: bravery, loyalty, dignity. They’re a four-legged expression of our lost innocence, an emblazoned counterargument to Werner Herzog’s conclusion that the universe is made up of chaos, hostility, and murder.
But Hollywood expects much more from our canine homies than to just be good boys and good girls. Dogs should be solving literal crimes! Dogs should be disrupting professional volleyball! Dogs should be sacrificing themselves in the snowy depths of the Yukon! Dogs should love us so hard they’re caught in a cycle of Eternal Recurrence! Dogs should be helping their dead-beat owners retain custody of their children by eating important court documents! This is why, if you were to just sample a few films from the smorgasbord that is high dog cinema, the plots of most of these dog movies would generally sound at least a little bit inconceivable, while the amount of different kinds of dog movies would simply drive you mad. Here then, for the discerning dog film aficionado, is a Taxonomy of Dog Films, should you ever stumble into this world.
The Golden Age Dogs
Notable examples: Benji; Old Yeller; Lassie Come Home; The Shaggy Dog; Where the Red Fern Grows; Shiloh; My Dog, the Thief; The Ugly Dachshund
These are your classic dog flicks. Technicolor dogs. Panavision dogs. The type of films you have on in the background while you sit on your plastic covered sofa, playing with your Lincoln Logs, and taking furtive bites from the glazed ham loaf your world-weary but wise maid just set down before you. This is old-school stuff, mixing painfully earnest doofiness with a nuclear family (or the frontier). These stories are concerned with something primal. These are the dogs whose paws are pressed into Hollywood Boulevard: Lassie, Benji, Old Yeller, Shiloh—dogs with gravitas and cachet, the dogs that built this town. Their movies are often, especially in the case of Old Yeller, unflinchingly honest about mortality and loss, and teach us perhaps more than we asked to know when it comes to mercy killing, and snuffing out the existence of a thing you love more than life itself.
Except for My Dog, the Thief, which is a counterargument for the dignity of the old-school dog. This weird excuse for a film centers on a Saint Bernard named Barabbas (!!!) who loves to steal shit—like anything, really; he’s just a kleptomaniac. I still haven’t stopped thinking about how they named the dog after the guy who was nearly crucified next to Jesus, but I also respect it.
Notable examples: Year of the Dog, Must Love Dogs, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Dog Days
Dog Days is Love Actually with dogs. Must Love Dogs is Sleepless in Seattle with dogs. And The Truth About Cats and Dogs is also a movie that exists.
Sometimes, there is nothing like the proximity to a dog, one of nature’s horniest, humpiest avatars, to put us in the mood for consensual—if a bit off-kilter and whimsical—romance between human beings. Dogs are often used as barometers of trust. They reliably growl at scum and accept without hesitation the whingey Jay Baruchel types who constantly find themselves punching above their gangly capabilities. Has Jay Baruchel ever been in a dog rom-com? I’m not sure, and it doesn’t matter. He will be one day. That’s just his torpid destiny.
Notable examples: A Dog’s Journey, A Dog’s Purpose, Vampire Dog, Oh! Heavenly Dog
These are films about dogs with a certain magical je ne sais quoi beyond the black magic already required for your standard talking dog. Sometimes it’s something as simple as Norm MacDonald’s turn as Fang in the incredibly accurately titled film Vampire Dog. Fang is some sort of terrier mix that is also a vampire who teaches a recently bereaved boy that bullying is bad.
More unsettling is 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose and its sequel, A Dog’s Journey. The dog loves Archie from Riverdale (KJ Apa) so much that despite literally dying, he finds himself in some heartland Buddhist reincarnation cycle and goes through the motions as several iterations of dog (German shepherd, corgi, Saint Bernard) for several different humans before finding that the years have transformed Archie into a very weathered Dennis Quaid. A lot of these films don’t make five dollars at the box office, but 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose did some respectable damage there, and justified its sequel, which has a nearly identical premise. It’s real heartstring-heavy stuff, featuring the type of shameless emotional beats that will put a hole in your chest and fill your eyes with tears at the exact moment as you are saying: “What the hell is this movie anyway? It’s kind of creepy when you think about it. Why can’t this poor dog rest? Is a dog’s purpose truly merely to be eternity’s indentured servant?”
Notable examples: Bombón El Perro, Umberto D., Hachi-ko Monogatari, Hercule et Sherlock
Films about dogs … but not in English. Hachiko Monogatari stars Tatsuya Nakadai, of Ran and the bad guy from Yojimbo/Sanjuro fame, and was remade into a Richard Gere film. It can also be credibly described as the inspiration for the most heart-rending moment in television history, Futurama’s “Jurassic Bark.” I’m crying right now just thinking about it.
Diminishing-Returns Direct-to-DVD Sequel Dogs
Notable examples: Air Buddies, Beethoven’s 3rd-8th
Look, you gotta put food on the table, and I guess, in this world, someone is making money off of Air Bud’s children going to outer space or Beethoven, the lovable Saint Bernard you knew from your youth, seeking out buried treasure in the year 2014.
Notable examples: Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Show Dogs, Cats and Dogs, The Art of Racing in the Rain, most other dog movies
These are movies adrift from specific classification, because many of them can slot in elsewhere: sports dogs, police dogs, semiracist caricatures of dogs. These films seem to invite the eyes of a soft clientele that I don’t know, generally have decent feelings about dogs, and aren’t opposed to their having super-stupid adventures involving busting international spy rings or helping nerds have sex. These films are usually on a scale from pleasantly stupid and goofy to unpleasantly stupid and goofy.
Notable examples: Lady and the Tramp, Oliver and Company, Bolt, Secret Life of Pets, Isle of Dogs
This is where the big bucks are made. Animated dog movies cut out the middleman: Just as the Godzilla franchise spent too many hours with the nonmonster dramatis personae, so, too, do live-action dog films, by necessity, spend altogether too much effort on crafting asinine plot lines for asinine humans, sidelining the dogs in their own damn dog films! No, here at last the dogs are sufficiently anthropomorphized so that we can watch two dogs of different classes lean into a truly erotic spaghetti meal or watch a group of dogs being uh, a gang of Dickensian thieves or whatever. And it isn’t even weird.
Within this category, there are various layers, including the Computer-Animated Dog Film (Bolt, The Secret Life of Pets) as well as the Stop-Motion Dog Animated Film (Isle of Dogs, Frankenweenie), and, finally, the Seriously Messed-Up Animated Dog Film, which hits some harder, crasser themes than its more anodyne cousins. It’s in this category to which I’d be so bold to say that Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven belongs. Leaving aside the beyond-upsetting real-life tragedy the film will always be tainted by, you’ve got alcoholic dogs, prostitute dogs, and also hell. For folks who really want to play in the dirt, I recommend The Plague Dogs, based on the novel by Richard Adams, most famous for putting rabbits in compromising positions.
Notable examples: The Incredible Journey, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco, Benji the Hunted, A Dog’s Way Home, Lost Dogs, First Dog
An inexplicably popular subgenre of Dog Movie is the Lost Dog or the Dog Trying to Find Home Movie. The popularity of said genre is explained somewhat by zeroing in on and accepting that the concept of home is actually the theme of every dog movie. Whether they’re on a zany quest simply to return to a house (The Incredible Journey), or attempting to reunite with their psychologically stunted humans who can barely exist in the world by themselves (Marmaduke), or striving to fashion a home with skeptical curmudgeons (Charles Grodin in Beethoven), the idea of “home” is at the crux of everything for dogs. In this construct, home is a physical place, sure, but the true home, the home of Plato’s cave, is the unconditional love of your particular human. Home is everything. Home is worth dying for.
These films usually kick off through some misunderstanding, often wacky but not always so. Unlucky dogs find themselves suddenly cut off from their human companions, usually in strange environments (San Francisco?!) for reasons they can’t possibly comprehend, and they must make their way back to safety and comfort. Watching distressed animals fend for themselves against all the accumulated hostile forces of the outside world for 90 minutes is not exactly my cup of Four Loko, but for some, this is the platonic ideal of dog cinema. It very much hinges, I’d say, on the never-say-die tenacity of man’s best friend. This is Homeric stuff. (Some motifs of this genre: stepfathers/mothers, foster homes, bumbling Secret Service agents, mountain lions.)
The undisputed powerhouse of this genre is the Homeward Bound franchise (the second installment features Jon Polito and Adam Goldberg as a boxer named Ashcan and a bullmastiff named Pete, respectively), but for real lost-dogs-returning-home-heads, I recommend Benji the Hunted, starring the eponymous Benji. This is a confusingly dark film from 1987 that I can only describe as the dog universe’s answer to First Blood. A recently lost-in-the-forest Benji takes stewardship of orphaned mountain lion cubs (though one is stolen by an eagle, get it together Benji) which is all very dire, but there is comic relief in the form of a hillbilly whom Benji constantly outthinks.
For real deep-cut freaks you’ve got First Dog, which may not even be a real film. It tells the story of one boy’s quixotic quest to return a dog he found to the president of the United States. Why bother? He’s not going to play fetch with the poor boy, he’s too busy trying to invade Iran! And of course, there’s A Dog’s Way Home. I think the best way to describe A Dog’s Way Home is to say that the film “was released in the United States on January 11, 2019, to mixed reviews from critics and grossed $80 million worldwide.”
Dead Dogs Who Come Back for Some Reason
Notable examples: All Dogs Go to Heaven, Oh! Heavenly Dog
We already went over All Dogs Go to Heaven, but what you gotta know about Oh! Heavenly Dog is that it costars Omar Sharif, of such non-dead-dog films as Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. More importantly, it is not the only movie in which Chevy Chase voices a dog. The dog in this case is none other than Benji, played with workmanlike aplomb by Benjean, the original Benji’s daughter.
Notable examples: Beethoven, 101 Dalmatians, 101 Dalmatians (live action), Lost and Found, Seven Psychopaths, Once Upon a Time in Venice, Marmaduke
These movies must feature the abduction of dogs—there is literally no other requirement. Strangely, there’s quite a range within this subcategory. Lots of people want to kidnap dogs, it seems, which is indubitably Not Cool. No one’s going to be your friend if you steal dogs. This is our oldest law.
Young Dogs That Grow Old and Die, I Guess?
Notable examples: Marley & Me, The Art of Racing in the Rain, My Dog Skip
The inexorable hand of the grave moves its spindly fingers ever closer to us all. Some people watched Marley & Me knowing full well what they were getting into: a movie about a dog that made messes and lived as long as dogs can live and then died. You people like Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston so much that you’re willing to sit through this? You’re willing to accept that Owen Wilson’s column about his clumsy, ill-behaved dog doubled the circulation of his newspaper? No, but really. This subcategory is the real emotionally manipulative shit. Even if you don’t like dogs particularly, you’ll get upset and sad and a little heartbroken watching these movies, because that’s what the power players in Hollywood want. They want you crying about pretend dogs. That’s their whole thing.
Dogs Who Are Friends With Other Animals
Notable examples: The Adventures of Milo and Otis, The Fox and the Hound
Yes, The Fox and the Hound is also an Animated Dog and Milo and Otis is also an International Dog, but there’s a great deal of cross-pollination in the dog cinematic universe. These two films are truly the masterpieces of this subgenre. Milo and Otis is a film literally everyone I have ever met has seen, yet probably no one could describe the plot off the top of their head. It’s almost a Terrence Malick movie, so overwhelming is the jaunty atmosphere and devil-may-care mood. At least, until you dive into the rabbit hole of “how many kittens died during the filming of Milo and Otis” and then you lose faith in the world.
The Fox and the Hound is a cartoon, so presumably no animals died during filming, but damn, this one is also a tearjerker. The dog really lets you down until the very last bit. Tough being friends with a fox, I guess—a lot of factors to juggle in that relationship.
Talking Dogs Born From Movies About Talking Babies
Notable example: Look Who’s Talking Now
A very specific genre, the only known entry thus far being 1993’s Look Who’s Talking Now, which takes the concept of something that isn’t supposed to talk—and certainly isn’t supposed to understand irony, sarcasm, pathos, etc.—and takes it to the next level by trading down from Bruce Willis as a talking baby to Danny DeVito and Diane Keaton as talking dogs. I can say with complete candor that my parents rented this for me on VHS and I watched it and I turned out fine.
Dogs That Are Other Animals
Notable examples: Free Willy, Babe, Andre, Dunston Checks In
This was a genre that was especially popular in the ’90s, presumably traced back to one feckless Hollywood producer who had a weird nightmare and was like, “Whoa. What if the dogs … didn’t have to be dogs? What if they were, like, other shit? A killer whale, or a pig, or a sea lion, or holy shit … hold up … an orangutan who wants to check into a hotel? I’ve just reinvented the wheel. I have become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.”
Notable examples: Cujo, The Hound of Baskervilles, The Pack, The Breed, Man’s Best Friend, White Dog
Then you’ve got your evil dogs! This isn’t a genre people actually like, because even evil dogs are dogs, and you don’t want to spend an entire movie rooting for the demise of a dog!
Dogs in the Snow
Notable examples: The Call of the Wild, White Fang, Eight Below, Snow Dogs, Balto, Iron Will, Stone Fox
This is one of the most tried and true genres of the dog film phylum, something you can count on to be a thing for your entire life. Death and taxes are apparently unavoidable (wouldn’t know, never died!), but alongside them I’d also offer the ubiquity of semi-inspiring films about huskies or (looked down upon) wolf-dogs pulling sleds in Alaska and/or Canada. Buoyed in part by the multiple adaptations of Jack London’s famous dog-in-the-snow novels, this corner of the dog galaxy shares much with dog cinema in general, with the added attraction of snow. Motifs include: grizzled frontiersmen, dog racism against wolves, tokenizedNative Americans/First Nation elders. A special shoutout to Snow Dogs, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. well after the Cuba Gooding Jr. bubble had popped, which takes this quite harrowing and serious vein of filmmaking and injects some Laurel and Hardy–meets–Boat Trip flavor. Not too bad, it turns out.
Notable examples: Air Bud and … well, pretty much just Air Bud
Buddy was a simple, good-hearted golden retriever who learned to boop a basketball with his nose, and in doing so, helped a boy overcome the trauma and heartbreak of his father’s death. Later—not specifically to help the boy continue healing from his father’s death, but maybe—he goes full jock-of-all-trades and in quick succession masters American football, soccer, baseball (what?!), and volleyball. Air Bud remains the alpha and the omega of dog athletes. Who would challenge this? He’s the Jordan, the Messi, the Serena Williams of this genre. Elsewhere, far below the Bud, there’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, which might be a stretch since Enzo the dog (voiced by Kevin Costner) wasn’t strictly a race car driver, but he was adjacent to the action enough to warrant an honorable mention here. Then there’s Karate Dog, which may in fact be problematic to the extreme, and certainly liberally expands the definition of sports, but does offer us the return of Chevy Chase voicing a very lascivious dog.
Notable examples: Turner & Hooch, K-9, Top Dog, Cop Dog, Show Dogs, Police Dog
It’s beyond unfortunate that certain dogs are compelled to be cop dogs. Dogs are meant to nap, fetch, gently frighten innocent postal workers, and take big ole obstinate shits on random lawns. They aren’t meant to be cops. Even if they’re actually sort of good at it, they’re innocents, and innocents shouldn’t be coerced into such dirty work. All that said, lotta classics in this category! Tom Hanks with a dog! Jim Belushi with a dog! Dean Cain with a dog! Chuck Norris with a dog!
(Honorable mention: Scooby-Doo. Not a police dog by conventional standards, but definitely an amateur sleuth dog, a genre that has yet to really explode but whose success I’m personally very invested in.)
Notable examples: Reservoir Dogs, Straw Dogs, Alpha Dog, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, War Dogs, Dog Day Afternoon
Contrary to their titles, these movies are not actually about dogs. Carry on.
Alex Siquig lives in Baltimore, drinks MD 20/20, and writes about things like Game of Thrones, the Willennium, and the life of Doug Funnie.