Director Lasse Hallström’s latest journey into the heart of the Kleenex box begins with a tender shot of newborn puppies. Narrator Josh Gad (voicing the title role of Dog) asks, in a manner both perky and solemn, “What is the meaning of life? Are we here for a reason?” Thus is announced both the theme of A Dog’s Purpose, and the tone of the script, which veers between Deepak Chopra and The Adventures of Milo and Otis. Dog doesn’t understand most human words, is highly distractible, and spends an awful lot of at least one lifespan chasing a deflated football, yet he seeks the truth of existence almost as fervently as he pursues table scraps.
Based on a lucrative novel by W. Bruce Cameron, A Dog’s Purpose follows Dog through a series of reincarnations, from the postwar era to the present day. The advantage here is that rather than just one set of hijinks, affection, and sacrifice that builds to a tearful farewell, you can have as many as you want. And Hallström and screenwriter Cathryn Michon want a lot. They want daring rescues, trashed dinner parties, and also the opportunity to chide bad dog ownership.
That last goal seems to be already accomplished, but not quite the way the script intended. The internet’s hackles have risen over an event that occurred while filming part of Dog’s stint as a heroic German shepherd police K-9 named Ellie. An on-set video leaked to TMZ shows a frightened animal resisting orders to enter a pool of churning water for the camera. The video then cuts abruptly to separate footage of the dog going under. The producers say the dog was never forced to go in, that he was pulled out quickly when struggling, and he is doing just fine. But the story is a bizarre contrast with the movie’s angelic vision of canine life.
It’s hard to say how the movie will play in the wake of this flap. I saw A Dog’s Purpose before the video surfaced, and I admit to sniffling at times. I’m only human. The longest segment focuses on Dog’s life as a Kennedy-era retriever named Bailey, who’s owned by a bright-faced kid named Ethan (Bryce Gheisar). This section hits every beat in the coming-of-age playbook, from the devotion of mother Elizabeth (Juliet Rylance) to the conflicts with Ethan’s alcoholic father (Luke Kirby). But Gheisar has a lively, unaffected manner, and his simplest scenes are often more effective than the drama that comes later, when tragedy befalls teen Ethan (K.J. Apa) and loneliness happens to craggy older Ethan (Dennis Quaid).
Dog also spends the late 1980s as a chubby Corgi owned by a shy student (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) who gets married and raises a houseful of kids. This is the least eventful story; I liked it best. The movie wasn’t trying as hard to ring any tears out of me, the score wasn’t so overbearing, and best of all, Dog didn’t talk as much.
Because otherwise, there is more than enough of Gad’s yappy narration, what with Dog’s thoughts about fun and feeding, the haw-haw scenes about a dog’s digestion, his everlasting wonder at how humans do the darnedest things. (“Are they fighting over food?” Dog inquires when two characters kiss.) For a character who’s in every scene, Dog doesn’t have much in the way of shading. When he chases chickens, the movie takes care not to include the gristly aftermath that often accompanies those chases in real life. A key choice for pet owners — do we neuter him? — never comes up. (Whatever a dog’s purpose may be, in this movie it does not include a sex drive.) Dog never has a grumpy thought, let alone a grumpy day, and it rarely occurs to him, as it surely has to many domestic animals, that not all humans are nice. Even Lassie wasn’t this saintly.
By the end, I was worn out by all the selfless devotion, all the joyous running across meadows and wheat fields while the camera soars as high as a dog’s love for his human. Filmed in the burnished glow that envelops all of Hallström’s American movies, A Dog’s Purpose recycles bits of every animal saga you can name, and practically dares you to make it through with a face of stone. Even a dog movie could use a higher purpose.