This past weekend, The Art of Racing in the Rain joined the glorious canon of cinema starring humanized dogs with audible inner monologues. These dogs are voiced by some of Hollywood’s biggest names, as I imagine whenever an actor’s agent calls them to tell them they have the opportunity to play a dog, the answer is always: “Sign me up, immediately.”
Below is a list ranking these dogs based on a very complicated algorithm involving likability, relatability, degree of realism, and most importantly, level of enjoyment you can get from describing said dog and their star-making vehicle to someone who’s never heard of it.
What Happens: Enzo starts out as the dog of a bachelor, and after some reservations, comes to life as a family dog once his owner Denny marries and has a daughter. This is one of three movies on this list that introduces the idea of dog reincarnation, but the only one on the list that believes that cycle eventually ends with the dog being reborn as a human. This is also one of two movies that reminds you that dogs can smell cancer, though this one does not suggest they have a good way of letting humans know.
Good Dog? Enzo is a patient dog. Since he tells the story of his life at the end of his life, he has the sage-old-dog vibes (perfectly conveyed by Costner), and he has been through some stuff. Car accidents. Being forgotten. A really scary stuffed zebra.
How fun/difficult is it to explain to someone who has never seen it: While the plot and even dog monologue conceit is pretty straightforward, it might be more difficult to explain how This Is Us fans, a group that would create more of a complete circle than a Venn diagram with this film’s target audience, will be able to sit through a Milo Ventimiglia dog movie. It’s the dog’s fault Jack died!
What happens: Bailey is the canine star of what seems to be a remake of My Dog Skip, until twist, his death is not the end of the movie but just the beginning as he is reincarnated into the body of another dog in another decade. While he commits himself to whatever job (police dog, family pet) his new life gives him, he always remembers his first owner, Ethan. The first movie ends with him reuniting with his first owner about 40 years after Ethan put him to sleep. Ethan is pretty quickly convinced he is now the owner of his childhood dog in another dog’s body. His faith in dog reincarnation and his own powers only grows in the second movie, when he tells his once again dying dog to take care of his granddaughter, implying that A) he’s confident the specific soul of this dog can not be stopped by death, and B) said dog soul has some power over where he’ll end up and who he’ll take care of. That’s a lot to put on someone on their deathbed.
Good Dog? The thing about Bailey is the variety—when Bailey is reincarnated, the dog’s gender changes. If you don’t think Gad’s voice is a clear choice for a Great Dane, maybe you’ll buy him as a Corgi. If you aren’t into dogs woven into old school fables of pre-Minecraft boyhood, maybe you like stories of dogs sniffing out cancer. One thing is for certain, if you leave this on in the background while you’re doing chores and just try to catch up with the plot periodically, it will mess you up.
How fun/difficult is it to explain to someone who’s never seen it: It actually gets a lot simpler when you start by telling them the trailer opens with “What is the meaning of life.”
What happens: Homeward Bound follows Shadow, Chance, and Sassy as they walk across the country to find their owners. Shadow, the wise golden retriever who belongs to Peter, the oldest kid, spends most of the movie trying to teach Chance, the youngest kid’s new dog how to be a good, loyal pet. Sassy continues to be a pretty stereotypical cat throughout. While Shadow is willing to face rapids, bears, and really anything the woods can throw at him to return to Peter, Chance needs a lot of convincing to feel like getting back to his boy is worth it.
Good Dog? The idea that a dog’s love and devotion isn’t automatic but something that has to grow and mature with the dog doesn’t exactly gel with every other canine narrative ever told, but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe Homeward Bound was written so we don’t take our dogs’ affection for granted. Or maybe it’s just as another opportunity for Fox to show off his animal voicing abilities.
How fun/difficult is it to explain to someone who has never seen it: Just say, have you ever wondered what Michael J. Fox would look like as a boxer mix? If they hadn’t before, they will now. And that will give them a truly unique Back to the Future viewing experience.
What Happens: See above.
Good Dog? Shadow is every single headline about a real-life dog walking 10,000 miles to return his owner’s slipper rolled into one beautiful golden retriever whose inner monologue has the distinct tenor of a grandpa who you never have to worry about saying something sexist at Thanksgiving dinner. Not just a good boy, Shadow is clearly a great boy.
How fun/difficult is it to explain to someone who’s never seen it: Because “dog faces incredible odds to return to his owner” is a pretty popular internet video, it’s not hard to explain the overall arc of the movie. Explaining the ending, that moment when Shadow crests the hill as the music swells, the moment he finally whispers Peter, can be a little tough to capture because anything gets harder to explain when you’re sobbing.
What Happens: No one has actually read Ivanhoe, yet a not insignificant number of millennials have a vague idea of the plot of Ivanhoe, and the fact that they incorrectly suspect it heavily features a dog does not take away from what Wishbone has done for the canon. Wishbone takes you through the (partial) plots of 50 classics during its two seasons, with a mix of B-plots involving middle school kids that could never quite live up to the dramatic tension of say, The Odyssey.
Good Dog? Wishbone is responsible for approximately 20 percent of all pub quiz wins and 5 percent of Jeopardy! victories—that’s just a statistical fact. It’s impossible for me to say if Larry Brantley’s voice sounds like what a Jack Russel Terrier would sound like if he was suddenly granted the ability to speak, because I watched so much Wishbone from such a young age that I assume all dogs sound like Larry Brantley, in the same way I assume all brontosaurus sound like Gabriel Damon and all giant birds sound like Carroll Spinney.
How fun/difficult is it to explain to someone who’s never seen it: It can be rough, but always rewarding. There are just so many layers, from the general conceit of a dog starring in adaptations of classic literature with an otherwise human cast to the way the adaptations are played so straight, yet all the episode titles are the worst dog puns.
Molly Horan is an adjunct professor at NYU and SVA who is responsible for more of the view count on the “Homeward Bound-End Scene” YouTube video than she’d like to admit.