Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky said there are two kinds of scenes in screenplays: the pet the dog scene and the kick the dog scene. “A Dog’s Purpose” manages to work in both.
This sappy, family-friendly tribute to man’s best friend kills its main character within mere moments. A stray puppy is snapped up by an evil, net-wielding dogcatcher, and soon he’s off to that nice farm in the sky. This serves as the starting point for the circle of life and metaphysical journey of our puppy protagonist.
Based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron and directed by Lasse Hallstrom, the movie suggests that dogs are constantly reincarnated. We follow the lives of a pup voiced by Josh Gad: the stray puppy; then a retriever named Bailey in the 1960s and ’70s; followed by Ellie, a German shepherd K-9 police dog; then Tino, a chubby ’80s corgi, and finally Buddy, a neglected St. Bernard with a long road home.
For all his shapes, forms and lives, it’s always Bailey inside there, retaining all the memories and experiences along the way. Bailey’s a rather existential dog, constantly questioning the meaning of life and the reason he is where he is. Is it to have fun? To make humans happy?
In coming up with a purpose, he eventually settles on “be here now.” Who knew yogi and spiritual teacher Ram Dass had four-legged followers?
The section dedicated to Bailey and his boy Ethan (Bryce Gheisar, then K.J. Apa), takes place in a “Pleasantville”-inspired simulacrum of midcentury Americana. It feels odd, cramming in dramatics of first loves, alcoholic fathers and tragic events, none of which is supported by the omnibus format of the film, which requires a kind of shallow, pat storytelling that’s all about short, endearing dog anecdotes.
The real problem, though, is that it’s painfully cheesy pablum, relying on stereotypes to take the place of character development.
The warm tales of animal heroism or dedication are the kind of thing you encounter in Reader’s Digest. The novelty of the film comes from its “dog’s perspective,” as Gad breathlessly inhabits the attention-addled, food-obsessed, emotionally intelligent psyche of this canine character. There are digs at cats, misunderstandings about what donkeys are called and speculation about why humans press their mouths together.
There is a late-breaking scandal harshing the buzz around this feel-good movie involving a troubling video of a reluctant dog, an aggressive trainer and a dangerous water stunt. This does threaten the possible success of the film, but the fact remains that with or without a scandal, what was there in the first place has all the emotional resonance of a dog-themed novelty coffee table book. Adorable, but ultimately forgettable.