Film Review: ‘A Dog’s Purpose’

Dog's Purpose

Lasse Hallström's controversial film about an oft-reincarnated pooch is guilelessly mawkish in its celebration of the canine spirit.

“A Dog’s Purpose” is the type of movie that lives or dies entirely on its audience’s goodwill. With it, the Lasse Hallström film could serve as a cinematic warm blanket in this moment of national fractiousness and fear: full of adorable pooches, gentle breezes of Hallmark card philosophy, and nonpartisan rah-rah Americana. Without it, it veers dangerously close to kitsch, shamelessly exploiting one of the most reliable tear-jerking devices in fiction – the death of a dog – over and over again. Given the undesirable press that has surrounded this film over the past week, goodwill may be in short supply.

The pre-release discussion of “A Dog’s Purpose” has largely revolved around a brief, disturbing video clip, provided to TMZ by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in which a German Shepherd performing on the film appears to be forced unwillingly into a raging water tank. The video stirred outrage and calls for a boycott, prompting Hallström and screenwriter W. Bruce Cameron (on whose novel the film is based) to issue statements in the film’s defense, as well as a thorough response from producer Gavin Polone, who acknowledged that the incident never should have happened, while also claiming that full, unedited footage from that shooting day reveals a much less objectionable picture.

Questions about this particular film’s on-set safety standards – not to mention the further-reaching debates about the ethics of using animals in film – are far beyond the purview of this review, but it’s hard to deny that the scandal colors the viewing of what is otherwise a guilelessly mawkish celebration of the canine will to power.

Predicated on an unexplained notion of doggy reincarnation, “A Dog’s Purpose” first introduces us to an eager stray puppy, soothingly voiced by Josh Gad, who narrates his confused introduction to the planet sometime in the early 1960s. Before three minutes have passed, he’s swiftly netted by a dog catcher and packed into the back of an animal control truck, after which he wakes up as a different dog. (The moment passes quickly enough that his implied fate will go over the heads of most youngsters, but it’s an oddly dark start to a film that will be largely sweetness and light from here on out.)

For his second time around, our protagonist is a hyperactive Golden Retriever puppy in a Midwestern small town, adopted by a cute little tyke (Bryce Gheisar) named Ethan. Naming the dog Bailey, Ethan has to work hard to convince his grumpy father (Luke Kirby) to keep the pup, and house-wrecking incidents are never in short supply. Often shooting low from a dog’s-eye perspective (albeit in color), Hallström wrings every ounce of cuteness out of Bailey’s antics, and his narrated attempts to understand cause-and-effect will surely tickle younger viewers.

After growing into a teenager (KJ Apa), Ethan enlists Bailey’s help to court a neighborhood girl named Hannah (Britt Robertson), and the pooch bears witness to Ethan’s burgeoning football stardom and his father’s descent into alcoholism. When a bizarre accident sidelines Ethan’s athletic career and leads to his breakup with Hannah, Bailey struggles to understand the gamut of human emotions, and eventually dies a comfortable old-age death. From here on, he’ll find himself embodying a variety of different breeds and genders, from an apartment-dwelling lap dog to a fearless K9 police recruit, though his final incarnation, as a stray who finds his way to a farmer played by Dennis Quaid, is designed to pack the most punch.

Except for one violent incident, the recurring depictions of doggy death are heavier on tear-duct-tugging than on upsetting details, although the film’s squishy theology could very well trigger some unintended consequences with its smallest viewers. (It’s hard enough to convince a traumatized child to choose another animal from the shelter – imagine if they insisted on finding the reincarnation of their former pet?) But viewed in a vacuum, it’s hard to fault the movie’s earnestness; Hallström’s canine cinema pedigree (which includes the superior “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale”) shows through; and Rachel Portman’s score is understandably sentimental without going completely saccharine.

As for the human actors on display, Quaid stays in his wheelhouse as a gruff but kindhearted old salt, and John Ortiz gives his all as a lonely Chicago cop, but the focus remains squarely on the performances of the film’s animal stars. Whether that will be a blessing or a curse at the box office remains to be seen.

Film Review: 'A Dog's Purpose'

Reviewed at Arclight, Hollywood, Jan. 23, 2017. MPAA rating: PG. Running time: 100 MIN.


A Universal Pictures release of an Amblin Entertainment and Reliance Entertainment presentation in association with Walden Media of a Pariah production. Producer: Gavin Polone. Executive producers: Alan Blomquist, Mark Sourian, Lauren Pfeiffer.


Director: Lasse Hallstrom. Screenplay: W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky, based on the novel by Cameron. Camera (color): Terry Stacey. Editor: Robert Leighton.


Britt Robertson, KJ Apa, John Ortiz, Dennis Quaid, Juliet Rylance, Luke Kirby, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Peggy Lipton, Pooch Hall, Josh Gad

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  1. K Alexander says:

    How come people can threaten to hurt others based on an edited video clip? But aside from that, I am going to watch this movie. If only to see what all the commotion is about:)

  2. Chris steiner says:

    How dare u do that to that dog. Putting him in water against his will. I should hunt u all down and throw in a pool of raging water. You stupid movie fucks. Never will see the movie. If u were in front of me right now i would beat your ass. U ever touch a dog again i will hunt u down and slice your throat. Thank you and have a shitty day.

  3. Richard says:

    The surest way to send any enviable movie project (no matter how well-intentioned) into the toilets is even a hint of abuse of either children or animals while filming. Why is anyone surprised at the backlash?

  4. Mike Johnson says:

    There are a few of issues with this video.

    One, the video was edited together from two separate days – as stated by PETA. The filming was halted when Hercules balked at going in the water. The second part of the video was from the next day after he jumped in on his own. There were clearly safeguards in place which is why he was unharmed. The editing without explanation was at best dishonest.

    Two, Hercules clearly was reluctant to jump in the water in the first part of the video. That is why they stopped the filming until he was comfortable with the jump. Just because a dog is initially uncomfortable with something does not mean you have to stop and give up. I have been training dogs in agility for more than 15 years and have not seen a dog yet that does not take some time to get used to certain things. Almost everyone – including PETA thinks that agility is a great activity for dogs and their people. If you just stopped because of a dog being uncomfortable without trying to gently work through it you may be denying a a lot of future happiness and bonding.

    Three, book related how a positive sentient being interacts with humans. This great message is now being overlooked because of an inaccurate representation of that happened. (please refer to Pauls message)

  5. When it’s beneficial for someone not to see cruelty or exploitation, they generally don’t—or won’t. Dogs don’t have the same concept of movies or of being an actor as we do. The video clearly shows that an animal was harmed in the making of the movie. There’s no defense for that.

  6. Paul Rodgers says:

    Folks, before you condemn a movie based upon a clip that was EDITED to show that in its worst possible light, find and watch the entire video. While I agree that the trainer should have stopped when the dog resisted, it was not cruelty in the normal sense of the word. And yes, I have been involved in animal rescue for over 25 years and seen my share of true abuse. Watch the full video and then form an opinion….

  7. Iowa Life says:

    Hollywood is interested in a buck, not decency.

  8. John says:

    I will never watch this movie. I don’t like animal cruelty

  9. Tim James says:

    Oh FFS, the dog was FINE. I know we’ve gotten used to it culturally, but our knees don’t have to be jerking at every moment of the day. There are better ways to get a little exercise.

  10. Craig Shapiro says:

    I’ll never set foot near this movie. With CGI on the cutting edge — Anyone see “The Jungle Book” — animals don’t need to be on a movie or TV set.

  11. Kim Marie says:

    No matter what anyone says, especially those who stand to profit from the film’s success, animals are not meant to work on movie sets. PETA already exposed Birds & Animals Unlimited for the cruel and inhumane abusers that they are, and that is who “A Dog’s Purpose” employed. Filmmakers should leave animals alone and stick to CGI.

  12. lucyspost says:

    People who care about animals won’t condone the cruelty that was caught on video during filiming. There is no excuse for exploiting and abusing animals for movies, TV, and commercials–especially with the amazing CGI and other cruelty-free options available these days. Just look at Noah, Jurassic Park, and the many other movies that were made without forcing animals to perform.

  13. Tom T Moore says:

    As I’ve covered in my newsletters and books, if you wish your great friend (dog, cat, etc) to return, just say OUT LOUD “I request a Most Benevolent Outcome for (name) to return to our family, thank you!” It’s that simple. One caution, don’t worry about the timing of the birth. The group soul of the dog, cat, etc. will make sure that you will connect again.

  14. Jennofur OConnor says:

    I’ve enjoyed Quaid’s corny movies over the years, but my family won’t be going to this one. He’s lost all my respect if he can condone cruelty to animals. And forcing a frantic dog into churning water for a scene is cruel – whether or not Quaid witnessed it.

  15. Dave says:

    Really? The first three paragraphs of a supposed movie review contains NOTHING except (1) a backhanded stab at national politics, (2) a completely blatant stab at a controversial video of an incident during filming, and (3) an opinion about… well, I’m not sure what. REALLY?

    I wanted to know whether to attend this film. You know – whether to spend my $$$ or wait until I can stream it. I simply REFUSE to wade through a fourth paragraph (the first 3 and 272 words barely mentioned ANYTHING about the, uh, film?) just to see what this RAG thinks.

    Last straw. This isn’t entertainment – it’s politics gone overboard, and progressives gone bad losers. Favorite bookmark deleted.

  16. Rosie says:

    Refusing to see this!

  17. Nanny Mo says:

    I can’t think of a lamer title for a film but anyway I do have two dogs and they are great.

  18. Yourmom says:

    I wish I had the patience to finish reading this review. I read the book, loved it, and appreciate my 4-legged friends even more. This review seems more like a shill for PETA than a review in and of itself. I don’t know about the movie, but I believe that the reviewer gets paid by the word.

  19. People are looking at God’s Spirit in the dog wanting to serve us. We find rest to our soul when we are with the dog like we find rest when we are with God. The dog does not condemn us. The dog is not looking for a fault in us. The dog does not rejoice in iniquity. They hope, bear and endure all things. Read 1 Corinthians 13:4:8:kjv. Charity is the bond of perfectness.

  20. Dex says:

    Will not see it.

  21. Mark says:

    Britt Marling?! If she was in this movie I might actually go see it. :-)

  22. Amy Reinhart says:

    You identified Britt Robertson as Brit Marling.

  23. Phoeniche says:

    A Dog’s Purpose
    A film by Lasse
    Reviewed by Barker

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