I still think about that harrowing pit scene from Homeward Bound

Hoping to write something about Will Ferrell talking dog comedy Strays, Liam Maguren instead chose to revisit a dark and dormant childhood memory—the harrowing pit scene from Disney flick Homeward Bound.

You’re supposed to find comfort and innocence in talking pet movies. Will Ferrell comedy Strays exists solely to pervert those expectations with doggy dick jokes. But it wasn’t the first film to betray this cinematic safe space. 30 years earlier, Disney released Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey.

Based on the novel by Sheila Burnford, originally adapted into Disney’s 1963 flick The Incredible Journey, 1993’s Homeward Bound took the relatable angst of a beloved pet going missing and made it fun by casting Michael J. Fox, Don Ameche, and Sally Field as an iconic lost trio—two domesticated dogs and a house cat—trying to return to their owners. By having the animals talk using Garfield logic (i.e. they can speak to each other but their mouths don’t move and humans can’t hear them), it cushioned audiences not to expect real-world rules or real-world consequences.

And yet, 70 minutes into this 85-minute family-friendly motion picture, Homeward Bound displays the uncomfortably real sight of an elderly dog unable to escape a pit of mud.

For the most part, Homeward Bound keeps things lighthearted and full of hijinks. Fox and Field give full radio play energy to dopey American bulldog pup Chance and precious Himalayan cat Sassy. Bit-part actors ham it up at the pound scene with an assortment of clownish gestures and goof faces. Cinematographer Reed Smoot has perhaps too much fun with his Jaws-esque POV shots. There’s even a part where the pets catapult a mountain lion off a cliff and into a lake.

It’s fluffy, fantastical, trademark ’90s Disney stuff. So when the harrowingly raw pit scene jumps out at you, you’re not prepared for it.

The scene comes after Shadow, the elderly golden retriever voiced by Ameche, successfully leads Chance and Sassy through the American wilderness—the ‘Incredible Journey’ part of Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. With only a train station between them and domesticated bliss, he pushes onward, only for a wooden platform to collapse and trap him in a muddy hole. He tries to climb out but his old bones just can’t do it.

It’s one of the earliest memories I have of a film filling me with genuine dread. As a kid, I’d never seen any animal in a realistically distressing situation. And unlike the mountain lion trebuchet sequence, a dog getting stuck in a pit felt painfully believable.

This confronting scene seemed like tonal whiplash from everything that came before—a spontaneous attempt to inject some sudden stakes for the sake of a tear-jerking ending. Looking back at it now, though, the film deserves more credit. This moment didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s a moment that simply works.

The film owes a lot to the mid-80s Ameche who leaned into his age to give Shadow’s voice the warmth and wisdom we’d expect to hear from an unflinchingly loyal good old boy. Able to make a simple line like, “I’m here to protect you,” sound achingly sincere, Ameche gave the film a heart big enough to match Fox and Field’s goofery.

This was also one of Ameche’s final roles before his passing, a bittersweet fact you can’t help but hear in the gruff depths of Shadow’s valorous voice. That quality becomes overt when Shadow gives up in the pit, telling Chance: “Do you think it’s easy for me to admit I can’t do it? I’m too old… I have nothing more to give…”


In the end, Shadow does make it out and everything’s fine. But, at that moment, Ameche makes you believe Shadow’s surrendering to his own mortality.

Homeward Bound teases the threat of death on multiple occasions. As Chance, Fox provides voice-over narration in the past tense, which makes every reference to Shadow sound a bit ominous. There’s a rather beautiful shot set against the lake, with the sunset reflecting against the water, where Shadow reflects on the nature of man and dog. Chance observes: “Looking at him that night, he seemed so wise… so ancient.” You can read that as a compliment. You can also read that as a eulogy.

We also feel the possibility of death when Sassy plummets off a waterfall. Sure, you can tell it’s a fake cat (animal welfare’s more important than a dope shot) and Sassy makes it out alive with no explanation, but it nonetheless primes the audience to not rule out existential threats.

These acts of fore-Shadow-ing (not sorry) combine to maximise the impact of the pit scene. You might be tempted to think, “Well, it’s a Disney flick, so I know the dog’s not going to die horribly,” but parents in the ’90s who were exposed to Disney’s Old Yeller could never rule that out.

It’s worth knowing that, like the Sassy waterfall sequence, the actual animal was never in any danger when filming the pit scene. And, just like that waterfall sequence, Shadow makes it out alive with no explanation given. That didn’t stop me, a non-critical child, from clapping and crying like a little idiot when he emerged from that field. That’s cinema.