'A Dog's Purpose': Film Review

The canine stars carry the day in this hokey but engaging tearjerker.
1/26/2017

A dog is reincarnated several times over in this adaptation of W. Bruce Cameron's best-selling novel.

Few movies have received more damaging publicity than the adaptation of W. Bruce Cameron’s best-seller about a serially reincarnated dog. And even though the allegations of animal abuse are currently being disputed, they are bound to deter some dog lovers, the film’s very target audience, from seeing A Dog’s Purpose.

Since this reviewer is in no position to determine the veracity of the charges — the film’s producer, Gavin Polone (a frequent contributor to The Hollywood Reporter), vigorously disputes them — only the finished product will be judged. This effort from director Lasse Hallstrom (who explored similar canine-themed territory in Hachi: A Dog’s Tale) proves a cloyingly sentimental, schmaltzy tearjerker that will nonetheless tug at the heartstrings of anyone who’s ever loved a pet. Audiences cannot help but respond to the film’s very first shot, a close-up of a litter of newborn puppies.

Josh Gad, who seems to be cornering the market on voice performances, vocalizes the various dogs in a storyline that spans several decades. It begins with Bailey, an adorable golden retriever puppy rescued from a sweltering, locked cry by 8-year-old Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) and his mother (Juliet Rylance). Adopted despite the reservations of Ethan’s stern, alcoholic father (Luke Kirby), the pooch forms an indelible bond with the boy, who grows into a strapping teen athlete (KJ Apa of new series Riverdale). Bailey also plays a not insignificant role in the romantic relationship between Ethan and his classmate Hannah (Britt Robertson), who comes to love the dog as much as Ethan does.

As the years go by, Bailey gets older, sicker and eventually put to sleep in a scene that will no doubt reduce anyone in the audience who’s gone through the experience with their own pets to tears. But that’s far from the end of the story. Bailey’s soul keeps being reincarnated in other dogs, beginning with Ellie, a German Shepherd who works in the K-9 division of the Chicago Police Department. Ellie’s partner, Carlos (John Ortiz), becomes deeply attached to his canine fellow officer, in part because of his own loneliness. When Ellie is killed in the line of duty, he is devastated. And so it goes, with Bailey returning as Tino, a Corgi adopted by a female college student (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and then Buddy, an Australian Shepherd/St. Bernard Mix who endures many travails before the story comes full circle with the reappearance of the now middle-aged Ethan (Dennis Quaid) and Hannah (Peggy Lipton).

Through it all, the story is told through Bailey’s perspective, with Gad voicing the dog who may have a limited grasp of English but proves himself a keen observer of humans. Watching Ethan and Hannah’s courtship, he describes how much they like to “wrestle and lick each other,” recognizing their ardor in the form of “that sweaty smell.” Adult viewers, at least, will find that a little of this cutesiness, not to mention the frequent POV shots from the various dogs’ vantage points, goes a long way; youngsters may become upset by the periodic depictions of doggy demises. The episodic storyline is only sporadically compelling, mostly swinging wildly from melodrama (Ethan’s father becomes violent and abusive) to silliness (Bailey swallows a rare coin, which Ethan desperately attempts to retrieve by the only means possible).  

Director Hallstrom succeeds in providing a diversified visual style to the proceedings, from the Andrew Wyeth-inspired look of the first segment to the grittier, handheld photography of the police dog episode. The soundtrack’s period-appropriate pop songs effectively convey the various time frames, while Rachel Portman’s score hammers home the emotional high points.

While the human performers are more than adequate, there’s no doubt that the canine stars carry the day. Their utter irresistibility helps a long way in terms of getting past the corny plot machinations of A Dog’s Purpose.   

Production companies: Amblin Entertainment, Reliance Entertainment, Walden Media, Pariah Entertainment Group
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Josh Gad, Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, Bryce Gheisar, KJ Apa, Juliet Rylance, Luke Kirby, Gabrielle Rose, Michael Bofshever, Britt Robertson, Logan Miller, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Pooch Hall, John Ortiz
Director: Lasse Halstrom
Screenwriters: W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky
Producer: Gavin Polone
Executive producers: Alan Blomquist, Mark Sourian, Lauren Pfeiffer
Director of photography: Terry Stacey
Production designer: Michael Carlin
Editor: Robert Leighton
Costume designer: Shay Cunliffe
Composer: Rachel Portman
Casting: John Papsidera

Rated PG-13, 99 minutes

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