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A silhouette of elands grazing in the plains with raising sun in the background inside Mas
  • Writer's pictureBryce Chismire

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey - 30th Anniversary Review


When I was a little boy, my family and I grew up in western Washington long before we settled in Colorado. Even during my more playful episodes, I remember being awestruck by the beautiful scenery surrounding me and our home.

We lived close to a beach, just a block and a half – and a downhill staircase – away. And adorning our neighborhood were forests thickened with lush, green trees and layers of foliage on the surface. Whenever I walked through them, I had to watch my step because I’d never known what I was stepping on. But I was so enamored by what I saw all around me that I didn’t care. I just felt so thankful to have lived in what I consider one of the most beautiful residential areas anyone would’ve been lucky to be familiar with.

That’s why, when I saw Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey around the same age, I had the same stunned impression that I felt gazing at the forest in all its density and atmosphere, and had a soft spot for it since. But as a child or an adult, I found plenty of other things to relish about it.

The story revolves around a reckless American bulldog named Chance, a witty Himalayan cat named Sassy, and an elderly golden retriever named Shadow. They were each owned by three children, whose mother, Laura, had just married their new stepfather, Bob Seaver. Shortly after the marriage, the family planned to go away on vacation for a couple of weeks, specifically to San Francisco, where Bob worked as a college professor. However, before they left, the family left Shadow, Chance, and Sassy to live with Laura’s college friend, Katie, a cattle rancher. Later, after a few days, the pets started becoming restless, suspecting and fearing that the family had abandoned them. Even the kids, Jamie, Hope, and Peter, were reluctant to leave them behind for so long, for they loved them that much. Shadow was the most troubled by this, so he had the idea to leave the farm behind, with Chance and Sassy following suit, and find his way home through mountainous terrain and tall forests.

But that was just the beginning. Throughout their trek, Shadow, Chance, and Sassy encountered one natural adversity after another, ranging from fending off defensive bears, braving their way through raging rapids, escaping a mountain lion, and tolerating an obnoxious porcupine. They even encountered a young girl who was separated from her family. And each obstacle continually tested their resilience, their resolve, and their friendship with each other. Would the pets pull through and find their way home? How would the family, and Katie, respond once they get wind of their disappearance?

After getting acquainted with this movie while living in Washington, I admired the movie’s sense of atmosphere, which is expected given where I lived, and its sense of energy. The three main characters had enough activity to keep me invested in the movie, even if I had no idea what was happening. That, and honestly, it made me develop a liking for both cats and dogs alike. Unlike some people, who are either dog lovers or cat lovers, I have no preference. Plus, having had a yellow Labrador as a family pet before, I can sympathize with the devotion in the movie, whether it’s from the kids toward their pets or the animals towards their maste–excuse me, “pets.”

While I’m at it, let’s talk about the main characters.

Sassy was just a smart aleck, albeit a likable one. Every time she witnessed mishaps from the dogs or even the humans, she was prone to respond to them with commonsensical yet self-righteous assessments. Her love-hate relationship with Chance was also generally fun to watch, as she always had to uphold her standards, whether to clean up after herself or whenever she was around humans. She even prioritized her cleanliness over other vital matters on the way home. But Chance didn’t care much about it, and this difference in attitude always had them butting heads against one another. However, as her predicament with the waterfall made clear, cleanliness is a no-go when assessing the more significant priorities to consider when taking a journey like the one she engaged in. That includes mere survival and realizing who, not what, she holds dear in her life. Or is it lives? Only she knows.

Chance felt like the most playful of the three pets but came across as the equivalent of an adoptee. Besides Bob, he was one of the family’s newest members and was generally confused about what was so special about humans, as he heard from Sassy and especially Shadow. So, like Sassy, the adventure he went on to would’ve had him open his eyes to who he held dear in his life, whether it be Shadow, Sassy, or even the human family, particularly the youngest child, Jamie.

Characteristically speaking, however, his background before he settled in with Shadow, Sassy, and the Seavers gave him weight. Chance admitted that the last time he was a pet, which was when he was a small puppy, he was abandoned. Because of this, he spent a good portion of his life scavenging for food around every corner of the streets he grew up in. However, his most traumatic experiences were when he was thrown into the dog pound. To him, this was where all the pets who were no longer loved or wanted were forced to dwell, and the horrifying elements of abandonment that came with it stuck with him since then.

So, he went from reminding me of Spots from Isle of Dogs to reminding me instead of Jessie from the Toy Story films. Think about it; with her being shelved for a long time after being left behind by her owner, Jesse developed severe claustrophobia, dreading the likelihood of being in enclosed spaces again. I can interpret the same thing with Chance, his issues with abandonment, and the possibility of being in a cage or stuck in another dog pound. So, it painted him with a firm respectability as he understood and appreciated the values of companionship and family.

With Shadow, he felt like the wisest and noblest of the pets. He understood the family, especially Peter, more than either Chance or even Sassy did and expressed his gratitude and commitment to them for the love they’ve given him. He was the first to sense that something might be wrong when Peter and his family didn’t return for them as they promised him. He knew they would’ve loved him and the other pets too much to leave them behind willingly. But it’s not just Peter or his family. Throughout their journey together, he felt responsible for watching out for Chance and Sassy. Being the most alert and experienced, he usually helped them both out by suggesting what they should do in times of turmoil. And when it seemed like he and Chance lost Sassy to the waterfall, Shadow felt dejected because he thought he let them down by not watching over them as he meant to.

However, as I’d find out near the end of the film, it’s likely that his devotion to his friends, especially Peter, might have been in play because he acknowledged that he may have been near the end of his life. It added a level of somberness beneath the wholesome image of Shadow demonstrating the necessities of man’s best friend.

Even the pets’ names, I thought, tied perfectly into each of their personalities.

Sassy felt like the most obvious choice since it highlighted the cat’s wittiness and crass statements. Chance felt amusingly apt since Chance was given another chance at life after enduring such a miserable past. At first, I was confused over why Shadow was given his name, but then, it occurred to me that he was the kind of dog who’d be on anyone’s side, through thick and thin. Hence, he could easily have served as his companions’ shadow because he’s that devoted to them. So, their names’ sense of meaning can clue you into their personalities, down to their depths.

Also, I initially expected the Seavers to feel standard yet natural. By that, I mean that the family would’ve felt standard yet had the benefit of having good performances to back them up. I remember the family generally acting as I would’ve expected any family to, but I didn’t remember them carrying as much substance to them as the pets did.

But revisiting this film, boy, was I in for a surprise!

The actors and actresses’ performances as the family were as good as I remember them, from Laura to Bob and the kids. And the family members that still stood out to me were the kids: Peter, Jamie, and Hope. Each acted like your everyday kids, but each expressed distinct personalities to them, just like their three pets did. While they didn’t have enough defining characteristics to make him stand out, their activities and childlike comprehension still shone through.

Hope was elegant but also slightly uptight. Jamie was the youngest and most childlike. And Peter felt like the noblest of them, always trying to thought-process problems as carefully as possible.

Interesting. Down to their personalities, these three kids matched those of their pets: Peter with Shadow, Jamie with Chance, and Hope with Sassy. And that was before Pokémon made it a thing!

But getting back on track, I discovered a hidden layer with the Seavers that I never noticed as a kid; it gave the family a dramatically engaging angle through which to evaluate them. For example, whereas’ Chance’s dilemma stemmed from abandonment, the family’s dilemma, besides reeling from their pets going missing, was usually the same that you’d expect from blended families. And in this case, the newest addition to the family was Bob Seaver, and nowhere was the family’s dramatically engaging angle more apparent than through his relationship with Peter.

When I was younger, I always saw this relationship as no different from Max and Goofy from A Goofy Movie. I looked at Bob like he was a well-meaning but inadequate father, while I thought Peter had to put up with his antics with snarky levelheadedness.

Now, I see it as Peter, the oldest of the three children, being still unsure whether to trust Bob as a father figure, especially as far as Shadow was concerned. And even though Bob occasionally prioritized his work in San Francisco, he never let it overshadow his commitment to his family, especially when they had problems to tend to. For example, when Peter snapped at him for suggesting that they leave the pets behind after they went missing, he got the idea to make a hundred copies of a missing ad with Shadow, Chance, and Sassy in it. This showed that he would have done anything he could to prove himself as his kids’ second father and as a worthy one.

In short, the characters had memorably distinct qualities to each of them, no matter their role or involvement.

However, this makes me wonder, whatever happened to the other father? Did he die? Did Laura divorce him? This was never addressed. But at the same time, I suspect that it was not mentioned to soften the family’s focus a little to emphasize that of the pets.

Frankly, the animals themselves also felt like good actors. The way they moved around or reacted depending on the circumstances felt typical of animal behavior every time they noticed something excitable, suspicious, or discouraging.

Now, I must elaborate on three elements from the movie that stood out to me.

The first one is the music by Bruce Broughton. It may not rank with the all-time greatest musical scores, but Broughton conveyed just the right amount of emotion, whimsy, naturalness, and even pathos to express what went on throughout the movie. Whenever it explored the travels throughout the wilderness, it captured the expansiveness of the atmosphere and the whimsical evaluation of life itself. When things became matters of life and death, it upped its more ominous, drastic tenors, with the sense of adrenaline addressing how serious the situation was. And when things looked tragic or hopeless, it dipped into that level of melodic but no less apparent depression that came with it.

Plus, the music even had more playful elements to it as well. I remember when Sassy tried to break Shadow and Chance out of the dog pound, and it was all set to the original TV theme song of Mission: Impossible. And this was before Tom Cruise’s take on the show made it famous again. So, the music conveyed many adequate emotional layers as you’d want in a movie about domesticated pets finding their way home.

As for the second element… the subtle shades of characterization noticeable from animals and humans alike? The eclectic displays of the wilderness at its most glorious or ominous? The person you can thank for this is director Duwayne Dunham.

Homeward Bound is his first directorial project after working on Twin Peaks, and it shows. He edited many episodes of that show and even had the honor of directing a couple of them. So, this gave him a good idea of when to hone in on the characters when it looked like they had a lot on their minds and their surroundings if they reflected their turmoil. It was bright when it seemed cheerful, in washed-out colors when it seemed sullen, and in darker colors when it seemed either mysterious or scary. The way he shot those scenes signified how they invited an intricate desire to know more about who or what we see, like there’s more to them than meets the eye. It worked in Twin Peaks because it added to its mysterious nature, and it worked here because it signaled a complexity apparent in people and places where we least expect it.

It was especially beneficial to the scenes where the animals trekked through the wilderness; it helped the movie portray Mother Nature in all her beauty but also in all her hostility. Whenever the film felt like allowing the atmosphere of the Sierra Nevada mountains or the plains and forests adorning them to seep through, it invited the audience to share the general feeling with the pets on their adventure. But the deeper they went, the more dangerous their quest became.

Some scenes of the forests looked ominous, especially at night, and you could never tell what may be creeping around the corner as the pets tried to navigate their way around them, even if they never knew what it was they were trying to avoid.

For instance, Shadow talked to Chance about what a moose was, and to him, it was a dangerous, nocturnal animal that’d feast off smaller prey. Of course, the way he described the ‘moose’ sounds more appropriate when talking about a bear or a mountain lion, both of which they eventually encountered. But it’s always interesting to watch the characters respond to the unknown forces of nature throughout the journey and wonder whether they would’ve made it through in one piece.

Some scenes demonstrated slight wittiness underneath the suspense, such as Shadow and Chance’s encounter with the mountain lion. But other scenes were shot from the crucial points of view necessary to heighten the terror factor associated with the dilemmas being dealt with.

When Shadow, Chance, and Sassy were being taken to the dog pound, the camera positions made the dog keepers look like the bad guys, especially given Chance’s horrific experiences with dog pounds. Usually, this would be a slight turn-off, given how the movie decided to portray which character in this given moment. But what makes it work is that this was experienced from the pets’ point of view, and they never knew that the dog keepers were only attempting to watch over them until the Seavers stopped by to pick them up.

And Sassy’s ordeal with the waterfall? Sheesh! Whether it’s aimed towards children or adults, this always had me on the edge of my seat as I sat biting my nails to see whether Sassy would’ve made it out of the river and away from the waterfall, despite the odds saying that no, she wouldn’t have made it. It’s right up there with family films like Aladdin, Jumanji, and even Disney’s Pinocchio regarding scenes that were effective because of how the active, energetic, and suspenseful tone and mood reflected how severe the situations really were.

Long story short, Dunham demonstrated how crucial it was for the characters to stay strong through the many obstacles and dangers that awaited them. And it was simply because of how inhospitable the wilderness and how dreadful such unanticipated circumstances can be.

And the third element, which I consider the movie’s shining aspect, was the voice acting by Don Ameche, Sally Field, and Michael J. Fox, whose performances were just dead on.

The animals didn’t say anything in the original ‘Incredible Journey’ by Sheila Burnford, which I read several years back. Their characterizations can be assessed primarily through their survival methods and commitment to each other on their journey home. I always find it interesting to know the characters through action rather than dialogue since it invites an interpretation of the characters by watching and feeling how they feel.

And I’ll admit, I have never watched the 1963 film yet, but from what I heard, the pets in that adaptation functioned the same way as they did in the book.

In this adaptation, however, the pets had voiceover performances so that we could develop a more concrete understanding of them and their camaraderie. Usually, it sounded like something added to the movie to draw the kids in, and part of it did have this in mind. Nevertheless, rather than painting the pets in a kid-friendly light, the voice actors added tremendous personality to them, not to mention the right chemistry between them, to the point where they felt like the reason I was so invested in their odyssey in the first place.

And even then, whenever people talk about the book or the ’63 film, they thought that with the dogs and cat behaving and expressing their thoughts like normal animals, the result felt akin to a nature documentary. Sometimes, it’s said as a compliment, but other times, it’s said as a complaint.

Here, with the voice performances, Shadow, Chance, and Sassy now felt like distinguished characters who still had to wrap their heads around the adversities they faced the further they marched onward and assessed how close they became after all they went through. It makes this feel more like an adventure film, just as it was structured to be.

Starting with Sally Field as Sassy, she felt like a genuine wisecracker. Every time she expressed herself as Sassy thought-processed what went on in front of her, her deliveries teeter-tottered between being ‘sensible yet reserved’ and ‘snarky yet hilarious.’ Her refined voice also seemed to match Sassy’s sense of refinedness. So, with her comedic touch, Field elevated Sassy into the kind of character who never failed to get a laugh, even if it seemed one-note. But whenever Sassy was emotional or in distress, Field pulled it off with Sassy with just as much effectiveness. More intriguingly, Disney artist Tom Sito said that, at the time, Field was not looking forward to voicing Sassy in this production. She thought that doing a voiceover performance in a children’s film would’ve undermined her reputation as an actress. But oh no, I would beg to differ. Instead, she became one of the critical invigorators of this ‘children’s film’ rather than being weighed down by it. Why? Because Field knew how to take a character like Sassy and add texture to her, both comedically and even dramatically when it was appropriate, and it all felt natural.

Michael J. Fox felt like he was born to play the role of Chance. Because Chance was young and had the experiences of growing up scavenging for food, Fox infused the character with layers of youth and cockiness to show for it. And much like Sally Field, he had the comedic skills necessary to allow Chance to engage in comedic quips that all felt in character. Some of them included jokes centered around KFC and Arnold Schwarzenegger, sure, but his deliveries and energy were such that they also felt natural, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes, whenever Chance argued with either Shadow or Sassy, Fox carried a slight sarcasm in his voice, which is why his clashes with Sassy felt so priceless and funny. But whenever Fox engaged in dramatic scenes, he conveyed Chance with a more noticeable oomph in his voice and tone. Plus, Michael J. Fox narrated the movie as Chance. So, every time he engaged in soliloquies where Chance assessed his living conditions and where his commitments lay, it brought on some sympathetic qualities and even an innermost depth that made Chance a surprisingly complex character.

And last but not least, you have Don Ameche as Shadow. Whenever he even spoke as Shadow, you could feel his wisdom and tenderness as Shadow contemplated his relationship with Peter or his four-legged companions. There’s a softness in his voice that signals his more relaxed and calm composure and a hidden yet initially uncertain vibe that something’s not right with him. I can feel it with him, and I’d find myself wanting to stand by his side just as Sassy and Chance did, like he was the kind of best friend that man would’ve deserved and needed.

One thing about his performance I need to note here is that this was one of Don Ameche’s final roles before he passed away later that same year in 1993. So it threw a heartfelt yet tragic angle to Shadow, who felt like he was on the last legs of life himself. On top of that, Ameche was not in the best health at the time, anyway, so the idea that he remained so committed to bringing Shadow to life the way he did makes his performance even more praiseworthy.

And I have one last thing to say about the performances that all three actors did so well. Besides just staying in character, they all did an excellent job of conveying what Shadow, Chance, and Sassy would’ve expressed in any given moment if they could’ve spoken and translated it all to us with the right energy and emotion to match. Think of it as a precursor to the thought translator that Dug would’ve had in Up, except no mechanical devices were needed with Shadow, Sassy, or Chance. Ameche, Field, and Fox all took a page out of Jean Shepherd and gave it their all in providing translations that were simple enough for the kids to follow up on but also funny, heartfelt, and even sophisticated enough for the grown-ups to appreciate, too.

While my mind is still fresh on it, this was one of Disney’s earliest live-action remakes long before it exploded into a trend, and a misguided one, at that. It even came out almost two years before Stephen Sommers’ Jungle Book and over three years before 101 Dalmatians with Glenn Close. And when you look at those films, especially the modern ones, they all have varying levels of creative merit but never felt like they captured the spirit of the original or forged one of their own to stand apart from the others. Yet Homeward Bound, in all its humbleness and inner strength, managed to pull all that off. If anyone mentioned The Incredible Journey, many might point to this one more than they might the book or the ’63 movie. And all with no CGI or retreaded plot threads to make it all happen!

Step aside, Lion King 2019; this is the live-action remake from Disney that deserves the royal treatment!

However, as I’m evaluating this movie more carefully, I’m sensing a particular element that disqualifies it as a legitimate remake. I know that Disney already made Sheila Burnford’s book into a film in 1963, but this film would count as a remake of the ’63 film if it referenced that specific interpretation of the story. But instead, it adapted the Burnford novel while throwing its own spins on the story, just as the ’63 film did. So, while comparisons between these two films are inevitable based on how they told the story, they have enough unique creative identities to be judged as two fundamentally separate interpretations of the same story. So, it puts this movie more or less in the same category as the Coen Brothers’ True Grit and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story.

Since this is an adaptation of Sheila Burnford’s book, deviations from the story’s presentation as it was in the book would also have been inevitable. Besides the exposition of the pets, as I laid out, and without going into too much detail, here are some other differences to note.

  • The eldest dog was a bull terrier whose name was Bodger.

  • The youngest dog was the golden retriever, whose name was Luath.

  • The cat was a male Siamese cat named Tao rather than a female Himalayan cat.

  • The story was uprooted from Northern Ontario, Canada, to the western United States. The Pacific Northwest, almost.

Beat by beat, however, the story remained the same, notwithstanding the more significant changes in the movie. As long as the more essential elements of The Incredible Journey were carried over, which they generally were, then that’s all you need to retell a good story your own way.

Regardless, what this movie accomplished on its own is commonly described as a remake done right, and justifiably so. It took the simple plot of three pets finding their way home and added extra elements to make it a more emotional and outreaching experience. Anyone who grew up with this throughout their lives, as I did, should be thankful for it. It’d give them a good idea of how to craft a genuine, robust family film or even a distinct remake that stands on its own terms. Whatever the case may be, this film has something for everyone.

With fabulous music, fruitful characterizations, awe-inspiring directing, and genuinely remarkable voice acting, Homeward Bound is an incredible journey worth embarking on.

My Rating

A low A-

Additional Thoughts

  • Before she stumbled with her takes on Disney’s modern live-action remakes, it’s still worth noting how Linda Woolverton made the characters as engaging and the story as riveting as they can be, no matter what medium is used for her to present them. She didn’t make Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King work because they were animated. And Woolverton didn’t make Homeward Bound work because it’s generally a family film. Instead, she made all three films work because she knew what good elements to utilize in these films when it could produce beneficial results for them, down to the story and characters. That’s what good writers do. They use the medium, style, and theme of the movie they work on to their advantage.

  • Believe it or not, most of the movie was shot in Oregon, even the scenes that allegedly portrayed the Sierra Nevada Mountains. That explains why the forest scenes felt so beauteous to me. That’s the same type of forestry I grew up around when my family and I still lived in Washington. Regardless, it still got the job done and portrayed the wilderness just right for the movie, just like So Weird also with the Pacific Northwest and True Grit with Ridgway, Colorado.

  • I don’t recall if this was referenced in the film or behind the scenes, but before Laura married Bob and became a Seaver, along with her kids, her family’s name was Burnford. It feels like a cute, soft reference to the last name of Shiela Burnford.

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