You Know, For Kids! ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ is Perversely Obsessed with Dead Dogs

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A Dog's Purpose

People have a natural connection with dogs. That combination of cuteness and loyalty is undeniably appealing. A dog will never lie to you. A dog won’t try to steal your significant other. A dog won’t argue with you. When you’ve had the worst possible day and get home, a dog will be ecstatic to be in your presence once again, enthusiastically greeting you with their special brand of unconditional love. All of these attributes are why people got so angered by the video which leaked from the set of A Dog’s Purpose showing a German Shepherd forced into raging waters on the film’s set. Even before it has opened, this video has done extensive damage to the film’s reputation among the people most likely to patronize it.

Even if we were to subtract the abhorrent video, there’d be little within A Dog’s Purpose to warrant a recommendation. Director Lasse Hallström’s adaptation of the novel by W. Bruce Cameron is a wildly bizarre movie, one about a dog voiced by Josh Gad that keeps getting reincarnated throughout the second half of the 20th Century. Oddly, A Dog’s Purpose seems aimed for young children with the intention of somehow softening the blow of the day when they lose their beloved pet to the inevitable with its story of canine reincarnation. This movie is desperate to make the audience cry repeatedly but only can do so by showing dogs die throughout. It’s impossible to feel nothing when greeted with the image of a dog slowly dying, but Lasse Hallström is incapable of making these moments actually mean something as at a certain point it just comes across as perverse.

“What is the meaning of life?” Gad’s dog ponders when the film opens as the dog is an adorable puppy. Then the dog catcher arrives and it is implied that this puppy has been put to sleep. (Fun!) Now the pooch is born again as a Red Retriever in 1962 and the film begins in earnest as this is the first of many lives we’ll witness Gad’s dog live. After escaping a puppy mill and being picked up by some skeezy garbage men who leave the helpless pooch in their hot car, young Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) and his mother (Juliet Rylance) rescue the dog and take him home where after a bit of negotiation with the family’s patriarch (Luke Kirby) it is agreed that Ethan can keep the dog, whom he names Bailey. Ethan and Bailey form a strong bond and the two are inseparable. Ethan’s mother is understanding with the dog’s rambunctious behavior while Ethan’s father is constantly stressed from work and the anxiety of the Cold War, often indulging in alcoholic excess to alieve his tension.

Years later, Ethan (K.J. Apa) in high school making waves on the campus as the quarterback of the football team. His father has slipped further into alcoholism but there’s a ray sunshine in Ethan’s life aside from his ever-loyal dog Bailey, and that’s the burgeoning relationship with Hannah (Britt Robertson). Just as things are on the upswing for Ethan with a loving relationship and a football scholarship, he suffers a leg injury in a house fire that derails his football career. He then goes into a depression spiral, rarely playing with his dog and eventually breaking up with Hannah. Shortly after leaving for an agricultural college, Bailey falls ill and Ethan must rush to be by his side as they put down the beloved dog. That, mind you, is just one of many stories within A Dog’s Purpose and it’s the one that takes up the most screen time.

From there, Gad’s pooch is reincarnated as a German Shepherd named Ellie in the Chicago Police Department in the ‘70s, working along Carlos (John Ortiz), a depressed officer that forms a bond with his canine partner. Then Ellie is shot in the line of duty and reincarnated in the ‘80s as Tino, the beloved Corgi belonging to Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and the faithful dog is alongside his owner as she falls in love, gets married, and has children before, you guessed it, dying of old age. Finally, the dog is reincarnated again as an Australian Shepherd/St. Bernard mutt. At first this poor pooch is property of neglectful owners, though they soon just set him loose on the streets. Eventually, the dog finds his way to a fully grown Ethan (Dennis Quaid), and the pup uses his magical purpose to facilitate a reunion between Ethan and Hannah (Peggy Lipton), thus fulfilling this dog’s purpose or some asinine thing like that.

What might be the most astounding feat of A Dog’s Purpose is the fact that between five credited screenwriters (W. Bruce Cameron & Cathryn Michon and Audrey Wells and Maya Forbes & Wally Wolodarsky) the entire unit was incapable of crafting one character that didn’t come across as some tired cliché. The scornful alcoholic father or the accepting, caring mother are just one of many bland characterizations that comprise the entirety of the film. At least the alcoholic father injects plenty of unintentional humor into the film. (To be clear, I’m not faulting any of the actors for their portrayals considering they’re given absolutely nothing to work with.) There’s also something that’s inherently unsettling about the fact that each of the film’s dogs are destined to die before your eyes without suspense or intrigue aside from how they’ll die. One of the more comically absurd moments occurs when Bailey alerts Ethan and his mother to their burning home. At first you wonder if this is a moment of sacrifice for the loyal dog, but it soon unfolds that the dog is able to alert the family, survive the blaze, and point out the perpetrator who set the house aflame.

The tone that Lasse Hallström brings to A Dog’s Purpose is genuinely baffling. The humor of the film is extremely obvious in its setups and execution that only a small child would find the film’s constant attempts at humor effective. This is counteracted by the film’s desire to hit on some adult issues, be they loneliness or the marital discord exacerbated by alcoholism. The simple fact that Hallström leans so heavily on Gad’s canine narration and rarely attempts visual storytelling makes this obviously a movie for young children. Meanwhile, unfortunate parents have to answer tough questions about the mortality of the beloved family pet to ease some of the uncontrollable sobbing of their children who have just watch multiple dogs die in various ways over 90 minutes.  All of which makes for a bizarre cinematic experience. It often feels that you could see Hallström talking to a young child repeatedly saying, “Do you like that dog? Do you think it’s cute? Well it’s going to die!”

Pet cemeteries exist and are strewn with flowers because pets give us warmth and love on even the darkest days. A Dog’s Purpose at times hits on those notes and does capture the affection that we give and receive to our animals. For the few times it gets it right, A Dog’s Purpose often misses the mark because its concept is so wildly bizarre. But it’s the execution that undoes A Dog’s Purpose, this blend of family friendly comedy and emotionally manipulative use of death. As a pet owner, I was left more infuriated than affected by the events of A Dog’s Purpose as it is nothing more than a ham-fisted piece of schlock that aims to exploit the connection we have to our pets.

A Dog's Purpose
  • Overall Score


A bizarre and tonally bonkers piece of storytelling, A Dog’s Purpose can’t craft a compelling story out of its concept so it instead tries to make the audience cry by consistently subjecting to the deaths of various dogs all voiced by Josh Gad.

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