×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘A Dog’s Purpose’

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

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

“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.

Production: 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.

Crew: 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.

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

More Film

  • Payroll Specialist Cast & Crew Sold

    Payroll Specialist Cast & Crew Sold to Investment Fund EQT VIII

    Payroll specialist Cast & Crew Entertainment Services has been sold by Silver Lake to the investment Fund EQT VIII for an undisclosed price. Cast & Crew, based in Burbank, Calif., and founded in 1976, touts itself as the premier provider of technology-enabled payroll and production-management services to the entertainment industry. Services include payroll processing, residuals [...]

  • Steve James Chicago Story

    Participant Media Partners With Filmmaker Steve James on Documentary 'Chicago Story' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Participant Media is reteaming with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Steve James and his longtime production home, Kartemquin Films, on his latest documentary, “Chicago Story.” Participant Media will finance the project, which will be produced by James and Zak Piper. Participant’s Jeff Skoll and Diane Weyermann will executive produce with Alex Kotlowitz and Gordon Quinn. James, Piper, and [...]

  • 'Metro 2033' Film Project Halted Because

    'Metro 2033' Film Project Halted Because 'A Lot of Things Didn't Work'

    It appears that MGM’s film adaptation of “Metro 2033” is no longer happening because “a lot of things didn’t work,” according to VG24/7. “Metro 2033” is a novel by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. It was also adapted into a series of successful survival horror shooters from video game publisher THQ and developer 4A Games in [...]

  • Jirga

    Film Review: 'Jirga'

    Buried within the closing crawl of writer, director, cinematographer and co-producer Benjamin Gilmour’s unfortunately cryptic but nonetheless fascinating debut film “Jirga” are shout-outs for security, political and cultural liaisons, as well as an Afghan film advisor. These credits speak, however quietly, to the no-doubt-delicate and clearly arduous making of a film that finds a guilt-ridden [...]

  • Fox Names Benjamin Bach Theatrical MD

    Fox Names Benjamin Bach MD for Germany, Replacing Vincent  De La Tour

    Twentieth Century Fox has upped Benjamin Bach to managing director, theatrical, for Austria and Germany. In Germany he takes over from the long-serving Vincent de la Tour who is leaving after 27 years. Bach has been MD of Fox’s operations in Austria since 2012 and he steps into his new, expanded, role immediately. He will [...]

  • Lois Smith

    Wes Anderson's 'The French Dispatch' Adds Lois Smith (EXCLUSIVE)

    Lois Smith has joined the cast of Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” Variety has learned. It continues a late-career resurgence for the 88-year-old stage and screen actress. Smith was nominated for a Gotham and Independent Spirit Award for her work in last year’s “Marjorie Prime,” a role that garnered her some of the best reviews [...]

  • Stephan James as Fonny and Brian

    Brian Tyree Henry Breaks Out Big in Jenkins' 'If Beale Street Could Talk'

    The final days of filming writer-director Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” were dedicated to moments that foreshadowed its entire plot: Having run into the recently incarcerated Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) on the streets of Harlem, the struggling artist Fonny (Stephan James) invites his friend back to his apartment for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content