The Powerful Subtext of Homeward Bound
Subtext-a message which is not stated directly but can be inferred.
Homeward Bound is one of those rare childhood films that can mean more to you as an adult. I would place Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in the same category, and I explain why in the posts, Willy Wonka is a Fine Wine and Finding God in Film. These films touch upon universal themes that children either overlook or fail to appreciate because there is much about life they have yet to experience. In the case of Homeward Bound, it took many repeat viewings and a good amount of growing up for me to grasp the powerful subtext at its core. From beginning to end this story is about fatherhood.
The film opens with the character of Chance, a young “pup” of a dog, delivering a brief monologue about his past. He says, “I was abandoned when I was very young. I lived on the streets scranging for food, sleeping wherever I could; that seemed like fun at first, but pretty soon, it landed me behind bars.” We learn that he was separated from his parents, and likely also separated from his first owners. Like a child whose father walked out, Chance feels the sting of abandonment.
The human children in the film, Peter, Hope and Jamie, are faced with the difficulty of accepting a new man in the role of father. In the beginning of the film we witness a wedding between their mother and her new husband, Bob. The children, especially Peter, are noticeably troubled. There is a touching moment immediately after the couple finishes saying their vows where Peter looks down at Shadow and pats him. It makes me wonder, what happened to Peter’s father? Did he walk out on the family, or did he die? It’s likely that Shadow was either Peter’s father’s dog, or given to Peter by his father. Regardless, we can assume that Shadow is deeply connected to Peter and his lost father. And in many ways Shadow fills the role of father for both Peter and Chance.
Without question, Shadow is the heart and soul of Homeward Bound. He is loyal, faithful, and wise. He is the leader and protector of Chance and the cat, Sassy. At the start of the film we see that Shadow views Chance much like an old man views the younger generation. He says, “I’d sure like to give that dog a talking to,” when Chance misbehaves at the wedding. Then he continues by asking Chance the rhetorical question, “Would a rolled up newspaper mean anything to you?” Shadow understands that Chance needs guidance and discipline. He has a lot to learn, since he has grown up without a fatherly example.
Later in the film, after the animals have spent many days journeying through the woods in an attempt to return home, Sassy gets caught in a river and tumbles over a waterfall. Once Shadow and Chance determine that she must be dead, we see the first moment in which Chance recognizes that Shadow is worthy of his respect. Here is the exchange.
Shadow: [after Sassy is lost in the river] I shouldn’t have made her come.
Chance: It’s not your fault, she wanted to come.
Shadow: But it’s my responsibility. I had a responsibility to Sassy – to love her and protect her – the same as I have to you… and to Peter. And the same as you have to Jamie.
Chance: But we didn’t ask for this job.
Shadow: We didn’t have to. It’s built in. Has been ever since the dawn of time… when a few wild dogs took it upon themselves to watch over man, to bark when he’s in danger, to run and play with him when he’s happy, to nuzzle him when he’s lonely. That’s why they call us man’s best friend.
Chance: [narrating] Looking at him that night, he seemed so wise… and ancient, like the first dog who ever walked the earth. I just hope that one day, I can be like him.
The exchange could easily be applied to fatherhood. Shadow speaks of having a responsibility to love and protect those who depend on him. And when Chance challenges this obligation by saying, “But we didn’t ask for this job,” Shadow responds that it is built-in. It is a deep and undeniable truth of life. Many fathers don’t ask to be fathers. Many fathers don’t accept the responsibility to love and protect their children. Chance is just beginning to understand.
Near the end of the film, Shadow falls into a hole and it appears that he may never get out. Watch from minute 1 to minute 4. After, I will explain how this is the moment that Chance fully accepts fatherhood, and Shadow answers the problem of abandonment, which permeates the entire film.
“I won’t let you give up,” Chance promises Shadow. He has become the loving protector. He gets down in the mud with Shadow to give him the strength to move forward. Chance also finally acknowledges that he loves Shadow and wants him by his side. This shows a profound devotion, much like the kind a father experiences with his son. But at the same time Shadow believes that his life is nearing its end. He states, “I have nothing left to give.” Despite Chance’s sincere efforts to encourage him, Shadow takes this desperate occasion to teach Chance a “final” lesson. He says, “You’ve learned everything you need, Chance. Now all you have to learn is how to say goodbye.” Every father must leave his son someday, and even if he was entirely loving and wise and loyal the son must learn to be on his own. He must make peace with the absence of his father.
If you continue to watch that clip you will see the children playing basketball with Bob. They are very happy, and we witness a touching moment in which Peter and Hope call their new father, dad. It tells us that the children, especially Peter, have accepted him. This means that they have learned to make peace with the father that is lost. It also indicates that they have made peace with the likelihood that their animals will never return. They have matured by learning how to say goodbye. And a major part of saying goodbye is the ability to say hello to what is in front of you.
The return of the animals at the end is deeply moving. It is also profound. After Sassy and Chance return, Peter becomes sad as he embraces the likelihood that Shadow was unable to make it.
“It was too far. He was just too old,” Peter tells himself.
The gulf between the living and the dead appears too far for us to ever be reunited. How could we ever hope to see them again?
I can’t help but think about God at this moment. I think about the promise of new life. All that is written about God being our loving Father, our protector. How often are we like Peter, losing hope? It’s too far. He is too old. It’s just an old story.
My Father isn’t about to rise over that hill.
Homeward Bound is about fatherhood, and healing from the pain of abandonment when fathers leave. The entire film is an expression of a father’s devotion to be reunited with his son.
It is about boundless love.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)