120 min. | PG
A Dog’s Purpose has a terrible start and gets worse from there. A red retriever runs away from the pound and is caught by two irresponsible day laborers. It’s a hot summer day. They leave the dog in the truck, windows rolled up, as they go inside to get drunk. Expectedly, the hot dog begins panting. It’s the 1950s. A mother (Juliet Rylance) and her son Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) pass by, and seeing the dog in discomfort, break the window, take the dog out and bring the canine home with them.
Some will view this as a righteous move to help a poor animal. Others (like me) note that they didn’t even try to find the truck owners, broke into and destroyed personal property, then stole the dog!
But really, we should’ve known something like this was coming, what with the unusual but not engaging opening moments and all. As director Lasse Hallstrom’s (The Hoax) film begins, Josh Gad (Frozen), providing voiceover in a hopeful, child-like tone, asks “what is the meaning of life?” and “Are we here for a reason?”
Within seconds there are puppies on screen, and we know he’s speaking from a dog’s point of view. Whether you believe dogs act on pure instinct or truly are existential thinkers, you have to allow the movie to do this (but you are allowed to roll your eyes) because every movie deserves a shot to work on its own terms.
Unfortunately the twisted logic in Cathyrn Michon’s script, based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron, never improves. The dog, now named Bailey, doesn’t understand the basic things Ethan says, but via voiceover quickly proclaims “I love rats” after Ethan says there’s a rat under the table. That’s a convenient and contrived way for him to wreck dinner. Later, Bailey understands the complex geometry needed to cut through a field in order to cut off a car, but doesn’t understand the simple reason the person is driving away. It’s so manipulative it’s offensive.
No matter what the dog does wrong, everything is supposed to be cute. Ethan never trains Bailey, but that doesn’t stop Ethan from taking him everywhere off leash, including a fairground with hundreds of people who may be allergic to pet dander. Later, Ethan’s girlfriend (Britt Robertson) brings the dog to his high school football games. In another segment, the reincarnated dog attends college courses and fine dining restaurants.
All this dog drama doesn’t even get into the human storylines, which are never interesting. None of the four vignettes—in which the dog’s soul comes back as another breed and bonds with humans—are substantial on their own terms. Did Ethan’s dad (Luke Kirby) have to be a drunk? It serves no purpose to the story. Why does Carlos (John Ortiz) live alone? We don’t spend enough time with him to find out. Will Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) ever find love? Sure, if she’ll get out of her own pigheaded way. These scenarios don’t evoke sympathy so much as groaning frustration.
A Dog’s Purpose is a pandering, scheming, unfortunate movie. Sure, dog lovers will find plenty of cuteness to enjoy. Other dog lovers will have seen the controversial video on social media featuring an animal handler forcing a German Shepherd into rough water to film a scene and boycott the movie. While the details of that event are in dispute, this is not: The movie is cloying, far-fetched and flat-out bad. Be a good human and play with your dog during the two hours you’d be watching this—it’s guaranteed to make you happier.