There's no lazier way to get a laugh out of an audience than cutting to a dog's face as a punchline. Similarly, there's no easier way to wring tears from an audience than putting that dog in jeopardy, or even killing off the poor pooch entirely. Both are shortcuts filmmakers can take when they want to squeeze emotion out of the viewer, but don't want to put in the effort to get them invested in an actual story or characters. "A Dog's Purpose" is a feature-length dog reaction shot interspersed with periodic doggy demise. The film makes its audience watch its tail-wagging protagonist kick the bucket over and over (and over) again as it's reincarnated into various canine bodies. It's undeniably effective, but it still feels cheap.
Based on the best-selling novel by W. Bruce Cameron, "A Dog's Purpose" follows one dog's soul as it's reincarnated as different breeds and genders across the decades. All the while we're allowed to hear his inner dialogue through voiceover provided by Josh Gad. The film is directed by Lasse Hallström, who knows his way around a dog movie, having previously helmed "My Life as a Dog" and "Hachi: A Dog's Tale."
The majority of the movie is dedicated to one of the dog's earliest lives, when he's named Bailey and owned by Ethan (Bryce Gheisar). Bailey never leaves Ethan's side, providing comfort as Ethan's homelife takes a turn for the worse, largely due to his alcoholic father. Boy and dog remain best friends as Ethan grows into a teen football star (now played by K.J. Apa) and finds himself falling for Hannah (Britt Robertson). But life pulls them apart, as Ethan goes off to college and Bailey is left to live out the rest of his days on the family farm. And then Bailey dies.
He comes back as a female German Shepherd police dog, partner and loyal companion to officer Carlos (John Ortiz). Then he's a Corgi who helps a lonely college student, Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) find love. Then he comes back as a hound, first owned by a down-and-out couple who eventually abandon him (some weird class issues are unintentionally raised when the film seems to suggest that only poor people mistreat their dogs). On the plus side, the dog's abandonment allows and adult Ethan (now played by Dennis Quaid) and Hannah (Peggy Lipton) to reenter Bailey's life.
"A Dog's Purpose" is meant to be an ode to man's best friend and the vital role a dog can play in a person's life, though it mainly succeeds in furthering the idea that the only purpose of these animals is to improve the lives of us humans.
Keeping Gad as a consistent voice works for character continuity, but the effect makes it seem that no matter what form, this dog is always Bailey on the inside. This doesn't help the idea that the other lives don't really count; that Bailey biding his time until he gets back to the owner who really matters to him. It's an odd thing to tell dog lovers -- that your dog might not really be your dog at all -- though I'm sure the conceit worked better in book form.
Unfortunately, the film's warm and fuzzy vibes threaten to be overshadowed by behind-the-scenes controversy. Shortly before the film premiered, video leaked of some questionable treatment of one of the film's canine stars on set. In a relatively candid letter to The Hollywood Reporter, the film's producer admits that mistakes were made, but that the video is edited in a way to be misleading as to the extent of those mistakes. The video has dominated online discussion around the movie, and while we're not likely to know for sure what happened on set, just the possibility of animal mistreatment is bound to keep some people away.
Still, as I read every day about how everything is terrible, that the world is on fire and crumbling down around us, maybe laughing and crying over adorable doggy antics can offer some welcome distraction, if only for two brief hours.