There are two really tough things to do while watching “A Dog’s Purpose.” The first is separating the movie from the controversy swirling around it due to a leaked video of a German Shepard allegedly being forced into some water. The second thing to do is keep yourself from full on ugly, snorting crying.
The catch-22 of “A Dog’s Purpose” is this: it’s impossible not to sob while watching a dog die over and over then be reincarnated into a new puppy, but it’s also impossible to ignore how this very same thing is the easiest emotional manipulation in what may be movie history.
So what do you do? You should leave the cynicism at the door, do your best to ignore the video controversy (admittedly difficult), and watch an adorable, often times heartbreaking, and fantastic tribute to the one animal that wants nothing more than food, sleep, and making people happy.
The inner monologue of the Dog in question is voiced by Josh Gad and “A Dog’s Purpose” shows the journey of, for lack of a better phrase, a dog’s soul as it is reincarnated from dog to dog over approximately 50 years. There’s a dark beginning for Dog and it serves almost as a warning that what’s to come won’t only include sunshine and rainbows.
But Dog’s second life takes him to 8-year old Ethan (Bryce Gheisar), who along with his mother (Juliet Rylance), rescues him from the inside of a truck cab. Ethan names him Bailey and after some debate from his burgeoning alcoholic father (Luke Kirby), Ethan is allowed to keep Bailey.
Ethan (now played by K.J. Apa) gets to high school and Bailey is by his side at every step. They both meet Hannah (Britt Robertson) and both Ethan and Bailey essentially begin dating her. A series of events crushes Ethan’s future and while he’s away at college, Bailey dies.
From there, Bailey is reincarnated as a Chicago police dog (and a female this time!) whose handler, Carlos(John Ortiz), has some unidentified heartbreak which Bailey tries to mend. He doesn’t succeed in that aspect, but he does get to do some K-9 police work which only points out just how much dogs can help society.
There are a few more tales for Bailey to tell in “A Dog’s Purpose” and the final one is brutally harrowing for any dog lover. The abusive home Bailey finds himself in is harrowing, but it makes the eventual redemption that much more poignant.
Director Lasse Hallstrom is no stranger to movies about dogs having directed the 2009 tearjerker “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale.” He’s clearly adept at filming dogs, who probably aren’t the best “actors” at taking direction. Many camera shots show the world from Bailey’s point of view and even the action that Bailey takes in his many lives (always escaping, jumping through open car windows, etc.) are done so well that it’s easy to ignore how preposterous it all is.
The major mistake that “A Dog’s Purpose” has made is letting audiences know via marketing materials that Dennis Quaid is in this movie. The final act, while emotionally engaging, is telegraphed before your behind even hits a theater seat. The impact of it could have been so much greater if it was crafted as a surprise instead of a certainty.
“A Dog’s Purpose” is one of the best love letters for dogs ever put together, even when the very device the movie uses to move the plot is as emotionally manipulative as one can get. It’s impossible to have dry eyes for almost the entire two hours of it. It may actually make you feel silly for falling for its intentional tugging at your heartstrings, but it’s about a dog. How bad can feeling like that possibly be?