Almost a decade ago, a story captivated the nation. This story follows a dog named Gonker, who went missing on the Appalachian Trail, and his loyal owner, who wouldn’t stop until the two were reunited. The tale of the Little Labrador That Could is endlessly suspenseful and surprising; but above all, it’s inspiring as hell. If you’re looking for an adaptation of this story that latches onto this final point and absolutely nothing else, Dog Gone is the film for you. Netflix’s newest feel-good endeavor centers around Fielding Marshall (Johnny Berchtold), a college student who rescues a yellow lab pup/bonafide goodboy from a shelter in an effort to get over his recent ex dating a ripped frisbee player.
But Fielding and Gonker can’t stay in their college campus dream life forever, and eventually it’s time to venture back into reality: Fielding’s parents’ multi-million dollar mansion. While there, Gonker runs off; but never fear! Fielding and his stern (but eventually proud and even touchy-feely!) dad John (Rob Lowe), will stop at nothing to get that doggone dog back from being gone!
As you might have gathered by now, Dog Gone is shamelessly sickly-sweet. From Fielder’s mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and her scorecard of people who contribute to helping find Gonker (subtly named the “Board of Heroes”), to countless “don’t judge a book by its cover” moments (one of which may or may not include a group of surprisingly soft-hearted bikers), to, of course, quality father-son bonding, this flick consistently travels out of its way to check every single box of sentimental trope bingo.
This exhaustively sanitized, overly saccharine take on the hero’s journey is certainly nothing new, but it remains rather uninteresting. With a family both wealthy enough to support a multi-week hiatus from work to look for their dog, and white enough that everyone and their mothers apparently want to help them out, the Marshalls run into little to no obstacles over the duration of their quest. If this doesn’t sound unimaginative enough, Dog Gone’s Disney score and inspirational Hallmark-card script might as well guarantee that Gonker is going to get back to his old antics in no time at all.
Perhaps most frustrating about Dog Gone’s unabashed gushiness, though, is that it’s dishonest to the story it’s based on. Fielding didn’t adopt the pup because his college sweetheart broke his heart. No, what really happened is that his baby tragically passed away during heart surgery, prompting his girlfriend to pack her things and leave without saying goodbye. Fielding wasn’t an early-twentysomething, then, but a grieving adult who reconnected with his father to look for his dog. Now that, I must say, sounds like a doggone good movie! But, alas, the adaptation’s relentless quest for palatability eliminates any possibility for a stimulating watch, and comes across as disingenuous in the process.
But this isn’t the only level on which Dog Gone reads as slightly dishonest. The film takes what is far from a universal experience and attempts to play it off as relatable. How many families, really, would be able to take two weeks off work and hike the Appalachian Trail? How many families could actually get the majority of the American people to rally behind their noble canine cause?
And while it isn’t a problem in itself that the Marshalls have the social clout and privilege to embark on this epic quest, it is strange that Dog Gone attempts to play their experience off without examination—touting that if you just do somethin’ with your doggone heart, nothing can really go wrong. Hmm.
But, despite its over-commitment to the family-friendly angle, Dog Gone is fun enough. Director Stephen Herek frames the opposition between Fielding and John so unambiguously (he was a hippie, he was a businessman, can I make it any more obvious?), that you have no choice but to indulge the arc and watch how it plays out. Similarly, it’s hard not to fall in love with a pooch who flips donuts in the air and catches them, so the main quest is bound to pull on your heartstrings—even just a little. These inklings of genuine heart make it that much more disappointing that Dog Gone is so steadfast on sanitizing Gonker’s real story.
Director: Stephen Herek
Writer: Nick Santora
Stars: Rob Lowe, Johnny Berchtold, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Nick Peine
Release Date: January 13, 2022 (Netflix)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.