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It’s very difficult to not like a movie about dogs. There’s something almost innately appealing about pups, especially for someone who was raised with them (I was). And because people harbor such affections for man’s best friend, A Dog’s Purpose has a built in audience. There will be those who won’t care about the film’s overly familiar narrative, who won’t think too hard about it’s frustratingly unexplained plot structure, and who will forgive its lopsided storytelling. It’s about a dog after all! Others won’t be so attuned to it’s saccharine sweetness. You know who you are.
The film centers around several dogs named Bailey, Ellie, Tino, and Buddy – all adorable dogs of different breeds, but here’s the hook – they’re all the same dog. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call the dog Bailey. Bailey is, at different times, a red retriever, a German shepherd, a corgi, and a mutt. How exactly is Bailey multiple dogs? That’s a good question, and it’s one that A Dog’s Purpose is not interested at all in answering. Suffice it to say that Bailey is reincarnated repeatedly and lives out several lives as different dogs – playing an integral part in the lives of the people who own him.
After a very brief first life cut short by a dog catcher, Bailey is born as a red retriever who ends up in the hands of Ethan (played first by Bryce Gheisar and later by KJ Apa), a young boy growing up in Michigan in the 1960s. From the time he’s a young boy, living in fear of his increasingly alcoholic father, to when he’s a high school senior and the quarterback of the football team – Bailey and Ethan remain inseparable, even when he gets caught up in a summer romance with Hannah (Britt Robertson, Tomorrowland). The whole thing feels very familiar – estranged drunken fathers, football scholarships given up – and it all ends when Bailey, after a long life, dies. But don’t feel sad – at least not too sad, because in an instant, he’s back, and as a girl.
Bailey’s subsequent lives are given considerably less screen time. First he finds himself as a police dog, trained by a lonely officer played by John Ortiz, Silver Linings Playbook. Then he comes back as a corgi and ends up in the hands of a lonely, socially awkward college student played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste. Then again as a mutt who makes it his mission to find his original home again.
If these feel more like a series of events than an actual plot, you’re entirely right. A Dog’s Purpose doesn’t so much have a plot as it does a thread of sentimentality tying it all together. The reappearance of Ethan as an old, lonely man played by Dennis Quaid, is meant to give the film a semblance of an arc, but really it is, to coin a phrase from The Simpsons, ‘It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.’ The lives Bailey leads aren’t particularly extraordinary and neither are the lives of the people who own him. Mind you, what little that does happen doesn’t contain an ounce of original drama. If the punchline to the film were that Bailey was being reincarnated inside Lifetime movies, it would be a fitting twist.
The best performances in the film seem to acknowledge the whole thing’s schmaltzy nature. Dennis Quaid in particular seems to know what kind of film he’s in. The rest is strictly TV movie fair. Josh Gad, Frozen, serves as the voice of Bailey and does, for the most part, a decent job not choking on the saccharine lines of dialog he’s given to read. The dogs do some of the best acting in the film – which brings up the inevitable animal rights controversy regarding the video that was leaked in the weeks up the film’s release. I’ll impress upon you dear readers to research the event if you’re so inclined and decide whether it will impact your decision to see the film.
It took 5 screenwriters to polish W. Bruce Cameron’s novel into this edgeless slog. Perhaps the most shocking thing about A Dog’s Purpose is that it’s directed by three-time Oscar nominee Lasse Hallstrom, who I assume is either a dog lover or had a boat to buy. The whole film feels like a cheap trick designed to tug overtly at your heartstrings. Dogs are cute. Watching dogs die is sad. Watching the same dog die over and over again is dumb.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
For all its many faults, there are a few moments that I, as someone who grew up with dogs, enjoyed and connected with. The problem with the movie is that those moments end as quickly as they arrive, and then I’m just watching a bad movie. But, as I said in the beginning, there is an audience for A Dog’s Purpose. It’s just a narrow one – people who love dogs, and really want to see a movie where the same one dies several times.