“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.