When I was a kid, one of my favorite films to watch with my brothers and my cousins was HOMEWARD BOUND: THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY. It was the story of three pets, Chance, Sassy, and Shadow, who mistakenly think that they’ve been abandoned by their owners when they are left at a family friend’s ranch when the family goes on vacation. These three comrades, concerned that their owners might be in danger, decide to escape the ranch to venture across the wilderness as they attempt to make their way back home to be reunited with their human family. Along the way, they endure many hardships, escaping dangerous predators, navigating unforgiving natural landscapes, and even avoiding capture form humans in order to make it back home. This film is an emotional journey for any kid watching, filled with moments both hilarious and heart-wrenching. Even to this day, when I think of the scene towards the end of the film where Shadow encourages Chance and Sassy to go on without him, I have to remind myself that I’m an adult and that it’s totally not professional to sit and weep uncontrollably at my cubical over a fictional dog as I type this article (I’ll save that for the trip home when I get to my car).
So naturally, when I saw the trailer for the Hungarian film WHITE GOD, I thought that I would be in for a somewhat quirkier version of HOMEWARD BOUND. I was partially right, but I can’t say I expected it to be a dark cautionary tale that acted as an allegory for what happens when we displace certain members of society. WHITE GOD is a film about a young girl named Lili, who is forced to stay with her estranged dad as her mom is out of the country for a few months with her step-father. Her father is surprised and none too pleased that he has also been saddled with taking care of her dog as well. New regulations have been put in place against mixed race dogs, meaning that the threat of fines has led to many people leaving their dogs out on the street. In a fit of anger, her father does just that and abandons Hagen at the side of the road despite his daughter’s heartbroken protests. Both Lili and Hagen set out on a quest to find one another. For both her and Hagen, this is a journey that acts as a loss of innocence, but where her mistakes ultimately lead to her learning, maturing, strengthening her relationships, and gaining the courage to stand up for what she believes is right, Hagen is thrown into a world of hatred and violence, and every misstep not only takes him further and further away from home, but further away from the dog he used to be. Eventually, Hagen is able to escape, rallying other abandoned dogs to his cause as his quest changes from trying to get back to Lili to seeking revenge against those who set him down this path in the first place.
The cinematography, acting, and the impressive amount of animal training and coordination definitely make the look of this movie nothing short of outstanding. I also love it when a film can deliver a great deal of story with very little dialogue, and this movie does that spectacularly given that unlike HOMEWARD BOUND, our animal protagonist isn’t given a voiceover. If you have a strong appreciation for any of the aspects of filmmaking, you will probably enjoy this film. However, it’s the story itself that tends to get a little convoluted, and I’m afraid this is where the film will either captivate you or lose you completely. Towards the end, the film begins to borrow from multiple genres as Hagen leads his charge against the humans, and this is where the film starts to feel like it’s all over the place. One minute the you feel your heart-pounding at the intensity of what’s happening, then sadly the next minute you find yourself giggling at unintentionally funny scenes of a dog systematically tracking people down and killing them in classic scary-movie-villain-fashion. However, one can argue that what the story means is more important than the story itself, so if you can get past some of the absurdity, you’ll find that there might just be a little more substance to this film than appeared at first glance.
Being an allegory, and intended to be somewhat reminiscent of a dark fairy tale, this film has a lot to say about the consequences of the systematic oppression of our peers. The underlying message of the film is that implicitly complying with this type of treatment, or even hypocritically denying that it exists at all, will ultimately have grave consequences. By refusing to step out of line while others are being mistreated, we will ultimately pay the price when the oppressed are pushed beyond their limits. While this may seem bleak, the film also has a lot to say about love; not only is love the only thing that may reunite our two main characters, love might also be the one thing to ultimately put an end to the violence that hatred and bigotry have caused. While I ultimately find this to be a heartwarming, intriguing, and altogether tragic notion all at once, the question in my mind remains is this: does simply having a lot to say make a film good, or does it just make it preachy?
I would argue that it depends on the film, and in the case of this film I’d be lying if I didn’t say I thought it was a good message. However, while I ultimately like the moral of the story, it left me an emotional mess by the time the credits rolled. I went from being upset at the scenes of brutality Hagen was suffering, to trying hard not to laugh out loud as he snuck up on his next victim, to being heartbroken and moved at Lili’s refusal to given up on her friend. Emotional roller-coaster doesn’t even begin to describe what this film put me through. I won’t spoil the ending for the film, but I after watching it I couldn’t help but ask myself, what is the ultimate price of this type of rebellion; do those who live by the sword truly have to die by it, or can true peace be attained by extending love and kindness? And even if it can, what are the lasting consequences of the violent actions taken in the name of justice? The film doesn’t answer any of these questions, and as you’re left with the idea about how love can bring people together, you can help but wonder about the overall consequences of the violence that has taken place and how that will ultimately affect our characters after the credits role. Maybe that was the point, as I spent the rest of the evening in a relatively contemplative, somber state. I don’t know if that was the film’s intent, but if it was, then mission accomplished. If I were to leave you with a final thought, I would say the film succeeds as a piece of art and of relevant social commentary. While I’m glad I saw it, I can’t say that I’d watch it again if given the chance. If you’re a dog lover, or are particularly sensitive to the idea of violence against animals, you might have a difficult time getting through this film. If you’re looking for something uplifting or lighthearted, I’d say save this film for another day. For me, I think I’d rather take a trip down memory lane and sit down with HOMEWARD BOUND again instead. It might not be as sophisticated or thought provoking as WHITE GOD, but sometimes something a little nostalgic and innocent is just what you need after something dark and grim.
WHITE GOD will be available in theaters on March 27, 2015.
~ Megan Salinas
Follow me on Twitter at: @themenguin