I’m gonna get one thing out of the way: I love dogs. And not in a casual “general animal” fan kind of way either – I’ve been known to tear up watching dog vines on Twitter and to lose my train of thought when confronted with a particularly cute mutt on the street. In a lot of ways, A Dog’s Purpose is a film geared specifically for me. But despite the film’s cuddly subject matter and family-friendly tone, it’s reliably too dark for children and too dully felt for adults, making it a film I’m not quite sure is for anyone at all.
The premise, for what it’s worth, is shockingly complex for a wide release family film: a single dog (voiced by a superb Josh Gad) searches for his purpose in life, throughout a series of reincarnations and a handful of quirky owners – and while his consciousness stays the same throughout, his various owners age and progress in time. Phew, I know.
The audience is privy to five of the canine’s lives: the first is cruel, and terminates in an unceremoniously short trip to the pound, setting the film off in a strange, off-kilter tone before returning for what is easily the film’s most frustratingly lengthy segments as young pup named Bailey. Bailey is a darling retriever, floppy eared and immeasurably exuberant, and after enduring a small amount of trauma at the hands of some cartoonishly greedy garbage men, finds himself in the arms of an equally energetic kid. The boy, named Ethan (played at different stages in his life by Bryce Gheisar, K.J. Apa and Dennis Quaid) is sweet, and his scenes with the dog are every inch Norman Rockwellian idyll, with the notable addition of more than a few poop jokes. But inevitably, life intervenes. There’s an alcoholic father, a snide and destructive bully and a calamitous accident that displaces Bailey and changes the course of his owner’s life forever.
If any of that sounds layered or intriguing, I promise you, it’s not. For all the film’s investment in “purpose” and humanity, A Dog’s Purpose seems uninterested in either, preferring instead to paint in broad, predictable strokes and dealing in tinny Americana rather than fundamental human truths. The script, which is performed largely by Gad in his various doggy incarnations, is woefully dull and unrelentingly immature despite his best efforts; so much so that Bailey’s resigned admission that “being alone might be the worst thing to happen to you” feels deeply profound in comparison to the inanity that precedes it.
By all accounts, Lasse Hallstrom is an incredibly talented director: he’s the man behind The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and the aptly titled My Life as a Dog, and he certainly knows how to craft a smart and complex narrative landscape bolstered with compelling visuals. But A Dog’s Purpose isn’t just flat on story, it can also be exasperatingly difficult to watch, particularly in the first act in which Hallstrom plays with bouncy dog POV, resulting in a theatrical experience that would more likely induce vomiting rather than trigger oxytocin. But when the film is touching, it’s touching – in terms of puppy tear-jerking, this is Marley and Me on speed – and anyone willing to pay the price of admission will certainly get their money’s worth in “I can’t believe I’m doing this” tears.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure how many people will pay the price of admission after this week. The leaked on-set video that featured a German Shepherd in duress before being plunged into water (whether it presents a clear picture of the events or not, a fact that’s been heavily debated by the producer of the film and star Dennis Quaid as falsely edited footage in the days leading up to its release) certainly poses a threat to the film’s marketability, and pitches the film’s animal-centric musings in an unfavorable hypocritical light. Ultimately, the film’s quality makes my quandary of whether or not I should endorse the film moot – I don’t think I would recommend A Dog’s Purpose regardless of any behind the scenes issues. It’s certainly not the worst film you’ll see this year, but it’s one I’m willing to bet you won’t remember by the end of it.
A Dog’s Purpose is in theaters this weekend.