A Dog’s Purpose (2017) Universal/Comedy-Drama RT: 100 minutes Rated PG (thematic elements, some peril, upsetting scenes) Director: Lasse Hallstrom Screenplay: W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky Music: Rachel Portman Cinematography: Terry Stacey Release date: January 27, 2017 (US) Cast: Josh Gad, Bryce Gheisar, K.J. Apa, Britt Robertson, Juliet Rylance, Luke Kirby, Michael Bofshever, Gabrielle Rose, Logan Miller, John Ortiz, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Pooch Hall, Nicole LaPlaca, Primo Allon, Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton.
I’ll start by addressing the elephant (or St. Bernard) in the room. Last week, a video allegedly showing one of the canine actors in A Dog’s Purpose being abused by his trainer surfaced. I saw it and I’m as upset as every dog lover out there. There’s been some debate as to its authenticity. I’ve heard that what happens is being taken out of context. I’ve also heard talk that PETA doctored it before making it public. I honestly don’t know what to believe. I’d like to believe that no dog was harmed or mistreated during the making of A Dog’s Purpose especially since it’s directed by Lasse Hallstrom whose filmography includes Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009), inarguably the best dog movie of the past ten years. Given that the Swedish filmmaker, who also made My Life as a Dog (NOT a dog movie), has experience working with dogs, I’d like to think he wouldn’t allow something like that to happen on his set. I wasn’t there so I can’t say for sure what did or did not happen. I can say that I detest animal abuse in any form. I truly hope nothing like that happened during the making of A Dog’s Purpose. Having said that, I’d now like to offer a fair and objective review of the movie.
Everybody who knows me well knows how much I love dogs. I’m currently the proud owner of a cute little Bichon Frise named Duchess. She brings my wife and I equal parts joy and grief (especially those 3am trips to the backyard to “do her business”). I’ve had dogs for most of my life so I can say without a shred of doubt that they are loyal creatures and the only beings on this planet truly capable of unconditional love. It stands to reason that I also really enjoy movies about dogs. I was moved to tears the first (and second and third and so on) time I saw the trailer for A Dog’s Purpose. The central idea that dogs live forever through reincarnation is beautiful. Anyone who’s ever owned one knows how difficult it is when they cross the Rainbow Bridge. I still miss all the dearly departed dogs of my youth. It’s nice to think they never really go away. They live on in our hearts and the bodies of other dogs.
The main pooch (voiced by comedian Josh Gad) in A Dog’s Purpose is Bailey, a Red Retriever pup rescued from the back of a hot truck by Ethan (Gheisar as a child; Apa as a teen) and his mother (Rylance, American Gothic). They take him home where Dad (Kirby, Touched with Fire) reluctantly agrees to let them keep him. From there on in, the boy and his dog are inseparable. Bailey is there when Ethan meets his first love Hannah (Robertson, The Longest Ride). He’s there to console Ethan when his father becomes a full-blown alcoholic. They’re together at the end when Bailey is put to sleep. A moment later, Bailey is reborn as a female German Shepherd police dog whose human partner (Ortiz, Fast & Furious) still grieves for his late wife. SPOILER ALERT! When “Ellie” meets a violent end, he’s reborn as a Corgi whose new owner (Baptiste) prefers food and studying to any sort of human contact. That is, until “Tino” rectifies that situation. In his fourth incarnation, he falls under the non-care of a rural punk girl (LaPlaca) and her ass of a boyfriend (Allon). He’s forced to live in a small, unkempt, junk-filled backyard until the boyfriend drives him to the middle of nowhere and leaves him there. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know what happens next; therefore, it’s NOT a spoiler. Bailey manages to find his first owner Ethan (now played by Dennis Quaid) still living on his grandparents’ old farm. But how can he convey to Ethan that he’s his old furry pal Bailey? How indeed?
I’ve heard some people compare A Dog’s Purpose to the 1989 comedy Look Who’s Talking in its use of voiceover narrative to convey the dog’s thoughts to the audience. Unlike Baby Mikey, Bailey has some pretty deep thoughts. Like all humans, he questions the purpose of his existence. Why is he here? What’s the meaning of life? Why does he keep coming back? Unlike Patrick Swayze in Road House, he eventually finds answers. A doggie philosopher, I love it! Now don’t go thinking A Dog’s Purpose is all sadness and existentialism. It has moments of humor too. How can you make a dog movie and not show the dog engaged in all kinds of canine mischief? A dinner with Dad’s boss and his wife turns into a catastrophe courtesy of Bailey. The dog has a bit of a dirty mind as well. When Hannah scratches him under his chin, he says, “My butt itches.” Of course, there are also moments of heroism involving a house fire and a kidnapped girl.
I thoroughly LOVED A Dog’s Purpose, Sure, it’s schmaltzy and sappy. There are scenes designed to raise the ire of dog lovers. I, for one, contend that killing a police dog should carry the same penalty as killing a human cop. I also contend that some people should be barred from owning animals EVER! See what I mean? As blatantly as it engages in emotional button-pushing, I totally bought into A Dog’s Purpose. Yes, I made use of the tissue in my coat pocket as did my wife. Yes, the happy ending put a smile on my face. I love that it has that hazy look like the family films of the 70s. Hallstrom has a real eye and ear for period detail. It has scenes in every decade from the 60s on. The human acting is passable. The dogs are great! A Dog’s Purpose is made with families in mind but should you bring the kids? It does deal with some mature themes- e.g. alcoholism, domestic abuse, child abduction and animal neglect. This could upset more sensitive children (and adults). However, it does have a positive message about living life to the fullest and enjoying every minute of it. As for the idea of a dog’s spirit being eternal, I choose to believe it. Why not? It makes sense actually. All that love and energy doesn’t just go away. A Dog’s Purpose may not be a great as Hachi but it comes very close. It’s totally worth seeing!