The Hunter family receive a telegram detailing that the father, James, has been offered a visiting fellowship at Oxford University in England. However, their two children Peter and Elizabeth worry about what is to be done with their two dogs, Luath the young Labrador Retriever and Bodger the elderly English Bull Terrier, along with their Siamese cat Tao, while they are away. Family friend John Longridge offers to have the animals stay with him, so that is what is arranged.
After a few days of having the animals in his care John leaves for the opening day of duck hunting season; he leaves his housekeeper Mrs. Oakes and her husband Bert to look after his house and the animals during his absence. Soon after John drives away, Luath hears the calls of wild geese overhead, returning home. This makes him want to do the same, so he starts off down the road and Tao and Bodger soon follow after him. Later, Mrs. Oakes arrives at John's house expecting to see the animals, but can't find them. Then she finds half of a note that John had written that appears to imply that he took the animals with him on the trip (however, the other half of it was accidentally knocked into the fireplace by the cat, but Mrs. Oakes doesn't realize this).
Now well on their way home, the animals stop at a river to have a drink, but have to hide from a passing truck in case they are recognized. After that, they continue on. By the next morning, old Bodger is very tired and is beginning to slow down, so the animals stop for a rest in a clearing and wait for Bodger to regain his strength. Tao goes off into the brush to hunt a partridge while the old dog rests. Soon, two bear cubs happen upon Bodger and investigate him, but then their mother arrives on the scene. The mother bear thinks Bodger has been hurting her cubs and attacks him; the cat witnesses this and in turn attacks her in trying to protect his friend. However, Tao eventually backs up, frightened. Finally, Luath sees the bear and starts barking furiously; this, combined with the yowling, spitting cat, is enough to cause the mother bear to back down and run away.
After a whole week of travelling, the animals adapt to travelling after dark so that there is less chance of someone seeing them. They cut through an old saw mill, but are shot at after Bodger, rather foolishly, steals an old bone from a cookhouse's rubbish bin. They escape unharmed, although Bodger's dignity is given a serious blow. After ten days, while Bodger is resting, he hears the singing of a hermit, named Jeremy.
The eccentric old man takes the animals to his hut, where he makes a stew for them to eat. The dogs don't really take to the stew and Tao is more interested in stalking Jeremy's pet crow, but they don't show that they aren't interested. After a while they decide to leave and continue their journey. Many miles along, the animals come to a wide river, which they realize they have no choice but to cross. Luath and Bodger make it across easily, but Tao prefers not to get wet so he finds a dam to cross. However, when he reaches a large gap, he tries to jump over it but falls into the water. Luath tries to rescue him, but is too slow to keep up and loses him.
After trying to console one another, Bodger and Luath decide to press on without their friend. However, many miles downriver, a young girl named Helvi discovers Tao, soaking wet, barely alive and half-starved, by the side of the water. She and her parents proceed to take Tao into their care and nurse him back to health over a number of days. One night, after recovering fully, the cat decides to leave the family and get back to the dogs.
Tao takes his time in travelling, now that he is alone. But, as he journeys deeper into the forest he discovers that he is being quietly stalked by a hungry lynx. The lynx attacks Tao and chases him up a tree, but he escapes. Then, the lynx corners Tao in a log, but is driven off by the arrival of a young boy with a rifle, allowing the cat to press on.
Not long after that, Luath and Bodger hear Tao calling. They immediately recognize their friend and the threesome are joyfully reunited. Together once again, the animals set off in search of food. Luath spies a porcupine, but gets too close to it, leaving him with quills stuck in his muzzle. Soon, while soothing his pain at a river, Luath meets hunter James MacKenzie, who takes pity on the young Labrador and brings him back to his house for treatment. When he arrives, he discovers that his wife Nell has found Bodger. The cat hides on a wood pile outside the house, watching and waiting and unnoticed by James or Nell. James removes the quills from Luath's muzzle (despite initially being on the receiving end of Bodger's protective instincts over the young dog) and that night, he locks the dogs in his barn, planning to ask around and find out who they belong to. Tao then rejoins his friends.
Meanwhile, John arrives home and it is discovered that the animals have disappeared. After some initial confusion as to why, the humans deduce that Luath has taken them home. John telephones the various ranger stations around the Ironmouth Range area, but they all say they will get in touch with him the following day. Later, the Hunters arrive home; John lets them know what's happened and Peter is quick to realize that an older dog such as Bodger most likely wouldn't have the strength to complete a journey so long, but Elizabeth remains firmly convinced that Tao will, sooner or later, return home. The animals, meanwhile, escape from the barn and the humans realize where they are and that they have only 40 miles left to go; this leads the humans to believe that if they've managed to get this far, they just may be able to make it all the way home.
On Peter's birthday soon afterwards, John gets Peter a registration paper from the Kenmore kennel, who are holding another Bull Terrier puppy in his name. All of a sudden, Elizabeth hears a dog barking in the distance and becomes immediately convinced that it must be Luath. Despite initial reservations, James whistles to the dog to see if Elizabeth is right; moments later they see Luath charging across the heathland ahead and barking, overjoyed to have finally returned home. A few seconds afterwards, Tao follows on and also arrives home safely.
Sadly, Peter is convinced that Bodger wasn't able to make the journey because he was too old, but is happy to see Tao and Luath again. Just then, Peter suddenly spots a white shape on the horizon, which he soon realizes is, in fact, Bodger, coming as quickly as he possibly can. The boy and the old dog are ecstatic to be reunited once again. The cat and Labrador join Bodger and Peter in their frolicking and all is well as the three very brave animals finally complete their incredible journey.
- Emile Genest as John Longridge
- John Drainie as Professor James Hunter
- Sandra Scott as Nancy Hunter
- Marion Finlayson as Elizabeth Hunter
- Ronald Cohoon as Peter Hunter
- Tommy Tweed as The Hermit
- Robert Christie as James MacKenzie
- Beth Lockerbie as Nell MacKenzie
- Beth Amos as Mrs. Oakes
- Eric Clavering as Bert Oakes
- Muffy the Bull Terrier as Bodger
- Rink the Labrador Retriever as Luath
- Syn Cat the Siamese cat as Tao
In 1993, Disney made a new version of the film, entitled Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. Featuring the voices of Don Ameche, Sally Field, and Michael J. Fox, the film keeps the same basic story line, but adds a subplot in which the kids are dealing with a new step-family. All three pets are renamed, the original breeds are switched, the gender of the cat switched, and the ages of the original Labrador and Bull Terrier are switched. It also has vocalizations of the animals' thoughts and communications with each other.
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