Yep, I can still recall just how much this particular film managed to stir, thrill, rattle and enthral me when I was first introduced to it at the age of four. Having spanned the past couple of decades or so as an afternoon TV favourite, it's given me plenty of opportunities over the years to catch up with it every so often and witness Lua the retriever, Bodger the bull terrier and Tao the Siamese cat making the incredible journey referenced in the title all over again. No matter how archaic it could easily be dismissed as in comparison to the kind of household pet movies that get snapped up nowadays (no celebrity voice-overs here
no voice-overs at all for that matter), it remains as charming and wonderful as I ever remember it being - simple, engaging, maybe even a little powerful, especially for anyone who's ever felt close to an animal companion of their own. The plot, straightforward enough for a young kid to easily follow, but never crossing the line into the overly simplistic or childish, is the perfect definition of loyalty and devotion, particularly in regards to the bond between a pet and their owner. Two dogs (one a sprightly youngster, the other an aged fellow struggling to keep up) and their feline friend get separated from the human family that's doted on them all their lives, and are compelled by their strong sense of homing instinct and longing for their two-legged pals to head off together in the direction of home - completely oblivious, of course, to the fact that it's over 200 miles away and leads mostly through a terrain of beautiful but treacherous wilderness where wild animals have the upper paw.
What works so well about 'the Incredible Journey' is that the animals themselves are actually a very good set of actors (the highly expressive cat playing Tao is particularly impressive), and the film-makers show a lot of well-judged willingness to let that tell the bulk of the story in itself. Contrast this with the 1993 remake, 'Homeward Bound', which updated the tale to a contemporary setting and, inevitably, gave them celebrity voice-overs and human personalities (a handful of people embraced it for precisely those reasons, but, even if one of those voices did come from the legendary Michael J Fox, I found it a little unconvincing and distracting myself). While that particular version chose to up the emphasis on comedy, and had its four-legged trio spouting throwaway wisecracks and playground dialogue for much of the time, the original was much more confident (and rightly so) in the animals' abilities to charm and engage us with their own naturalistic merits. An off-screen narrator does explain a lot of the details that they probably couldn't have otherwise conveyed on their own, but these never feel forced or excessively anthropomorphic - they remain animals at all times, natural and convincing, and in the process actually manage to express far more depth and character than the 'Homeward Bound' trio ever could, even with their firm grasp of the English language. That scene where Bodger licks and nudges Tao so enthusiastically says a lot more about the affection they have for one another, I think, than all the throwaway gags in the world.
The human actors are more of a mixed bag - some of them are good, some of them are just average - but hey, they're hardly the reason why most of us would choose to watch this movie in the first place. Things are generally a lot stronger when they're focusing on the animals, a fair exception being the sequence involving a lonely young girl who provides temporary refuge for Tao, which paves way for one of the most poignant moments in the entire film (and which the remake, oddly enough, has no equivalent scene for).
Another great thing about 'the Incredible Journey' is the way in which it manages to blend both the beauty and splendour of the natural wilderness with the far rougher 'survival of the fittest' principle that drives it. The scene involving the mother bear and her cubs goes from being cute and amusing to outright towering in the blink of an eye (allowing the ever-charismatic Tao to bag one of his finest moments). The scene where Tao gets pursued by the lynx is also pretty frightening (and certainly not without its irony), and Lua's run-in with the porcupine becomes rather harrowing when the poor dog has to deal with the consequences of going after such prickly prey. Incidents which all serve as sharp reminders of just how vulnerable these pampered pets really are in a world so far out of their usual kitchen-and-fireside-rug element. Though it was the river-crossing sequence, along with the less dramatic but equally affecting scene that follows, that I'll readily admit to finding most heart-rending the first time I saw it, and on every single viewing since I can't help but feel just a little apprehensive inside as it happens.
Still, while it's certainly a more daunting experience than its light-hearted remake (which reformulated most of those scenes for their comic effect), it also maintains a good balance between the danger and the warmth, and the robust appeal of its trio of leads gives it a heart of solid gold from beginning to end. Other than the animals, the scenery and the background score, there really isn't a great deal else to it when all is said and done, but those assets alone are effective enough to make it soar - indeed, the only modern creature flick that could stand a chance of outclassing it would have to be 'Babe'. Tailor-made for any pet lover, 'the Incredible Journey' is one of Disney's key live action classics, one which I've enjoyed watching all my life, and I anticipate many a pleasurable repeated viewing in the years and afternoon TV airings still to come.