I have no problem admitting that I am a sucker for cute animal videos. At one point in my life, I would be perfectly content going on YouTube and watch hours and hours of cute animal videos. I’m glad to say those dog days are over, but I can still appreciate and understand their appeal. Sitting through A Dog’s Purpose should have been a simple task, but, for lack of a better word, it was rough.
I am not a sociopath. I cried at the beginning of UP and at the end of Marley & Me. Both films show two extremes of storytelling where the execution transcends the amount of time it takes to deliver that emotional gut-punch. Where both of these films create genuine emotion that works in harmony every other aspect of the film, A Dog’s Purpose attempts to force the sentiment, turning this dog film into a pale copycat. This imitation leaves the film feeling watered-down and without any edge. In the end, A Dog’s Purpose is a toothless statement on animal companionship proving that this film’s bark is much more interesting than its bite.
A Dog’s Purpose spends the film in the simple mindset of a dog who continues to be reincarnated every time it dies. The weirder part is that the dog remembers all of its memories and experiences from its past lives, but for some reason does not utilize them. A cat person would offer the explanation that dogs are inherently dumb, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and blame lazy script writing. In this case, that would put screenplay writers Catherine Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky, and screenplay writer and novelist W. Bruce Cameron, all in the doghouse for this melodramatic fiasco. The problem with a dog continuously facing an existential crisis is that it presents all the evidence suggesting that maybe we are the problem. It takes innumerable lifetimes and dog years for the dog to come to the conclusion that maybe his purpose is dependant on humans. At the same time, almost everything bad that has ever happened to him was because of humans. Bailey’s existentialist journey is a contagious one that will most likely have you leaving the theater re-evaluating whether our imposed slavery on these animals is really what is best for them.
While Bailey is facing this philosophical crisis, we see him as a different dog in multiple lives, none all of which are great and a few result in an early death. The film does a great job highlighting diversity in the representation of his owners and pays great attention to detail in the recreation of the time period’s aesthetic. Where director Lasse Hallström fails the film is in the pacing and forcing of emotions. It won’t come as a surprise to you, but our cinema canine has to die multiple times in order to be reincarnated. The entire film is centered around his lives, but only in so much as it builds up to their inevitable end. Hallström approaches this film with the same formulaic technique that you would find in your run-of-the-mill Hallmark film, and surprisingly it works, if only the first time.
The initial story (which is later revisited) takes it’s time developing the relationship between boy and pup, which then makes the emotional climax at the end of that story the most powerful part of the film. Unfortunately, the more lives we visit, the more hackneyed and rush the approach feels, cheapening any goodwill the viewer may have developed up to that point. Hallström’s manipulation is pardonable at the beginning because there is a good amount of groundwork leading up to it. Every subsequent attempt just brings back diminishing returns and makes it more and more obvious just how desperately Hallström wants our tears, and he will kill as many puppies as he has to just to satiate his thirst.
The performances are the best part of the film, and I’m mostly talking about the animal talent. Every actor and actress attached to this film, from Dennis Quaid to Kirby Howell-Baptiste to John Ortiz, all give an adequate performance and try to work with the material and time they are given. Like the dogs, time is against them as they introduce each subsequent character with less and less time to develop them and develop the pet relationship. The only consistent factor the entire film has is Josh Gad’s affable charm guiding the story through his narration that sometimes feels a little too much like a segment of America’s Funniest Home Videos. He tries to keep the film engaging with his running commentary tied to the dog’s actions, but most of the time his improv falls flat.
It’s hard to tell how A Dog’s Purpose will affect each person individually. This film is relying on you to bring your personal baggage regarding pet ownership, even if it doesn’t always reward your emotional investment. A Dog’s Purpose works best when you don’t pay attention to its pseudo-philosophical musings or emotional manipulation, but let the images of adorable dogs guide you into an innocuous stupor.