Fifty Shades Darker doesn’t come out for a few weeks, so it’s a bit of a surprise that the most masochistic movie of the season is opening this weekend. A Dog’s Purpose is generally a fine movie, but you can’t deny that you have to be a complete glutton for punishment to watch the same dog die four times in a two-hour period. I’m afraid of dogs – allergic to them, too – and even I went through half a pocket pack of tissues.
In fairness, the continual death of this dog, whose inner monologue is voiced by Josh Gad (Frozen), is central to the premise of both the film and the incredibly popular novel by W. Bruce Cameron on which it’s based. The dog, whom I’ll call Bailey for the sake of ease, is trying to find a purpose for his lives as he continually is born, does dog things, dies, and is reincarnated as a new dog with a new set of people with whom to spend his life. Most of the first half of the film is spent on Bailey and Ethan, the boy to whom he belongs (played at different ages by Bryce Gheisar and K.J. Apa). A Dog’s Purpose is not a film anyone will describe as “subtle,” and Ethan is your stereotypical 1960s all-American teen, from the football scholarship to the sweet, pretty girlfriend, to the alcoholic father.
Bailey lives a happy life with Ethan – happier and less complicated than Ethan’s life, of course, since Bailey is a dog, and also because Ethan has some dramatic moments. But nothing lasts forever, and eventually, Bailey dies. Rather than chasing rabbits in doggie heaven, he’s reincarnated and becomes a heroic police dog. Then another death scene in which half the theater is sniffling, and suddenly Bailey is a puppy adopted by a college student. And so on.
Throughout the film and all of his lives, Bailey continues to wonder what his purpose is. It’s an oddly philosophical theme for a movie that is so shallow a tadpole couldn’t survive in it, though if you’re buying tickets to this movie in the hopes of actually discover the meaning of life, you’re probably going to get what you deserve. You sort of get what Bailey’s purpose in the last act of the movie, but I won’t spoil it for you in case you’ve avoided literally all information about this movie except for this review.
Speaking of information about this movie, this is probably a good time to mention that there has been some controversy around the treatment of the dogs involved. Some people say bad things happened, some people swear no bad things happened. I have no idea which is true, so I’ll let you sort through the testimonials for yourself.
On the whole, A Dog’s Purpose has all of the parts it needs to be the movie it’s trying to be. The acting won’t win anyone any awards, but it gets the job done. Director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) moves the film along nicely, aside from an extra 10 or 15 minutes in the initial section of the film focused on Bailey and Ethan’s family. There are some jokes that will land with almost all audiences, and a handful more that will especially delight dog-lovers. In that same vein, it’s probably pretty obvious that this is a movie that is more likely to appeal to people who love dogs, but it’s also surprisingly engaging for those of us who merely wish dogs well from afar.
A Dog’s Purpose is not sophisticated, and there are no complex themes. But it’s meant to be broadly accessible, simple, and emotionally manipulative. As films with those traits go, you could do worse. Just be sure to skip the mascara and bring your Kleenex.