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When it comes to movies about animals, surely the dog has had the most screen time, from every conceivable genre starring just about every single breed, and a few that were made up. Most dominate in children’s stories, the dog is often seen as loyal and brave, forever living up the adage, “man’s best friend.” With A Dog’s Purpose, that aphorism is taken to heart and then some in this odd film that strives with every breath it has to manipulate its viewers but in so doing, makes this a detached experience that has no bite.
It is essentially the story of a dog named Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad), who, after a few false starts, ends up getting rescued by a young boy named Ethan (K.J. Apa) and his mother (Juliet Rylance), adopting the puppy after some workers thoughtlessly leave him unattended in a sealed vehicle with no water. A bond is quickly formed between the boy and the dog, despite Bailey being an overly-rambunctious pet that causes havoc everywhere he goes. It’s the 1960s and the boy and his dog grow together, having adventures and even meeting Hannah (Britt Robertson). Life is good.
Then it gets bad. Very bad. Ethan’s alcoholic father is increasingly aggressive. The guys on the football team, who are jealous of Ethan’s rise as a star, pull off an appalling prank, dashing Ethan’s hope to be an All- American athlete. Things get even worse and then poor Bailey dies, leaving Ethan alone and lonely. But hold on, because Bailey’s just begun his journey as he is reincarnated into other dogs, and spends the next few decades in a dizzying array of doggie lives, some good, some really not as he learns about his true purpose and the circle he is about to make.
Directed by Lasse Hallström, whose earlier works include What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, and Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, A Dog’s Purpose is a surprisingly misguided attempt in delivering W. Bruce Cameron‘s highly-acclaimed book of the same name to the big screen. While certain emotional ups and downs are expected and worthy in a film aimed at a younger audience, the tonal shifts and overt manipulations of A Dog’s Purpose make for an uneven and troubling film. As Bailey must die to move on, the methods become the motivations, from euthanasia to straight-up gunshot wounds, and the choice to have Gad layer it all in a saccharine sheen only makes it more unappealing, something that should have ben left out from the start.
That’s not to say the dogs are not adorable, because naturally they are, but for a family film, the movie sure is off-base, with Bailey’s efforts to get the teenaged Ethan to talk with Hannah a good example, as he literally puts his nose up her skirt, which is only the beginning. Sure, the film is meant to be funny and more, inspiring, hence the middle bits as Bailey experiences life as a German Shepard police dog who saves lives (there’s a harrowing bit involving a kidnapper and a victim in a dark reservoir), and then as a Corgi who helps his owner find some love. Of course there are bad times too, and Bailey gets a taste of the worst in humans.
All of this is dipped in copious amounts of sap, and there’s no letting up from the forced emotional machinations that try and squeeze everything they can from every last scene. It’s not helped by the screenplay that is contrived, propping up a tenuous theme that is undercut by the very method of how the story is being told. We get Dennis Quaid for a short bit, who manages to be effective in his small part, but it’s not enough to make up for a story that could have been a lot more affecting if it had spent less time on animal tricks and more on the impactful moments it had potential in delivering.
Movie description: A Dog's Purpose is a 2017 drama about a dog's spirit that is reincarnated into bodies of many dogs as it searches for the meaning of life.
Director(s): Lasse Hallström
Actor(s): Josh Gad, Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton