Going home, with incredible talking animals

February 12, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Will someone please shut these animals up! "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey" is like a talk show for dogs and cats. They're like old comedians gathered in a Beverly Hills deli to discuss the great days of live television; imagine Phil Silvers, Shecky Green, Scoey Mitchell and Nipsy Russell just kvetching away until the wee hours.

The film, a remake of an earlier Disney version of the Sheila Burnsford best seller of the late '50s, tells of two dogs and a cat who, benignly separated from their masters in Northern California, set off on an epic trans-Sierra journey to return home.

The original movie was simply narrated in the authoritarian voice of the storyteller (Rex Allen Jr.), who, like God, ascribed motive and personality to each of the animals, who were otherwise left alone to perform their tricks. This new version takes the technique yet another step into anthropomorphic banality.

Now, movie stars read actual dialogue, though the animals themselves (thank God) haven't been coached to ape "talking." The whole thing therefore has a spooky feel to it, as if you're eavesdropping on the telepathic communication between the beasts, and they happen to sound like Michael J. Fox, Don Ameche and Sally Field. Though there's no reason for the device to work -- and though it sounds absurd in description -- it only takes a second or two for the novelty to wear off, and then it seems as right as rain, although it's occasionally intrusive.

The story is quite primitive, engineered to deliver a phony crises every 20 minutes or so. Somewhat like the Our Gang comedies, our gang of four-footed mammals is capable of ingenious strategic ploys in a split second's improvisation -- in one example, they manage to catapult a mountain lion over the edge of a cliff. But the constant manipulation and near-miss ploys grow tiresome after a bit.

And the anthropomorphism is a bit selective. We hear the cat say, "Lunch is served" as she flips a fish over to one of the dogs, but we don't hear the fish say, "Please don't eat me, please. Oh, God, it's hurts so much, please, AIEEEE!!!!" Now wouldn't that be an interesting movie, though I doubt the little kids would much like it.

I think it was a mistake to use Fox, whose voice and inflections are so well-known that they continually undercut the illusion of the film. You keep half-expecting Alex Keaton to wander in and give you some advice on growth stocks. The fail-safe big moments -- the return of the three to home and hearth -- still pack their cheesy wallop, but getting there hasn't been much fun at all.

'Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey'

Starring the voices of Michael J. Fox, Don Ameche and Sally Fields.

Directed by Duwayne Dunham.

Released by Walt Disney.

Rated G.

... **

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