A DOG'S PURPOSE
Director: Lasse Hallström
Cast: KJ Apa, Britt Robertson, Juliet Rylance, Luke Kirby, Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, John Ortiz, Gabrielle Rose, Michael Bofshever, Pooch Hall, Logan Miller, Bryce Gheisar, the voice of Josh Gad
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements and some peril)
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 1/27/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 26, 2017
The first dog death occurs within five minutes of A Dog's Purpose. It's a playful puppy, too. Thankfully, director Lasse Hallström saves us the actual scene that results when the stray pup is nabbed by the local dogcatcher, but thanks to the dog's voice-over (provided by Josh Gad), we know that the puppy is disappointed that it lived such a short life, even though it was filled with eating and playing and digging.
In other words, the movie is trying to yank drops from our tear ducts almost immediately. The story's premise is one that has been constructed to do that over and over again, until, ironically, we're almost numb to the idea of seeing yet another dog die on screen. The setup is that the curious soul of that puppy is reincarnated into the bodies of other dogs every decade or so. As if to announce that the movie's philosophical reach is going to exceed its grasp, the voice begins the movie with the question, "What's the meaning of life?"
We get to hear the thoughts of this soul as it takes on the forms of a Golden Retriever, a German Shepherd, a Corgi, and a St. Bernard. Three of those dogs die, too, by the way, just to reiterate the real emotional undercurrent of the movie. Obviously, the fourth one isn't going to be around forever, either, but the movie also spares us that inevitability.
One easily could argue that this is a rather morbid premise for a movie. Even the least jaded among us should see through the manipulative ways of Cathryn Michon's screenplay (based on a novel by W. Bruce Cameron).
There's a flip side to these observations, though, and it's that the movie's manipulations tap into that almost primal feeling that we have toward that most loyal and devoted of the domesticated animals. Maybe it's just the fact that the movie's central dog shares a name with the last dog I had. Anyone who says this film criticism thing isn't and shouldn't be an almost wholly subjective exercise would probably demand that I ignore this coincidental detail. To such a demand, I say, sorry, that's not happening.
After the glossed-over euthanasia of the puppy, the canine soul finds itself transported, via the repeated imagery of watery light, to the body of a Golden Retriever puppy. It escapes a farm and finds a boy named Ethan (Bryce Gheisar). He wants to keep the dog. His mother (Juliet Rylance) thinks it would be good for her son to have a friend, and she eventually convinces Ethan's father (Luke Kirby) of the same. Ethan names the dod Bailey.
It's probably pointless to relate what follows. Boy loves dog. Boy trains dog. Dog gets into a few messes (some involving the family cat, with the movie's anti-cat bias culminating in a scene of Bailey digging up the feline's corpse and presenting it as a gift to the family). Boy grows into a teenager (played by KJ Apa) with the dog always by his side. Boy meets and falls hard for a girl named Hannah (Britt Robertson), who also loves the dog.
It's the sort of sweet, down-home schmaltz that one would expect, with the added challenges of the increasingly hostile alcoholism of Ethan's dad and an act of accidental arson that changes Ethan's plans for the future. There's an earnestness to the performances here—especially from Apa and Robertson—that keeps the material from becoming too mawkish, and Gad's narration possesses a quality of confounded innocence, which is endearing enough to make the screenplay's philosophical digressions only result in a few eye-rolls.
Eventually, the story of the boy and his dog reaches its unavoidable conclusion, and it's a veterinarian's office scene that pulls every predictable trick and a couple of unexpected ones. The latter tricks are the result of the movie's perspective. Since it's a story told by a dog, Hallström shoots a significant portion of the scene from Bailey's fading, subjective point of view. Yes, it's manipulative to a significant degree, but in order to fully realize it, one would have to get through the choked-up feeling that results. It's no easy task.
Save for the soul's final incarnation, the rest of the movie has nothing to do with Ethan. Bailey's soul is transferred to a police dog under the care of a lonely Chicago police officer (John Ortiz) and then to the lapdog of a lonely college student (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). As far as digressions go, these sections certainly feel unnecessary. The thematic undercurrent, obviously, is loneliness and how people either perpetuate or counter that state of mind (The cop's story is a little cruel in how it's left unresolved).
These parts of the story, though, are time-fillers at heart, since the ultimate point is to move through the years to a time when the reincarnated Bailey finds an older Ethan (played by Dennis Quaid, with his typical earnest charm) alone. The resulting conclusion is a series of anticlimactic coincidences that help everyone achieve a happy ending, but that's what we've been expecting, anyway. Despite its existential questions on the meaning of life, the purpose of A Dog's Purpose is ultimately to jerk a few tears. It tries so hard to do so, which becomes irritating and dulling, although it'd be a lie to say that it's wholly ineffective in its goal.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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