For most of us, there’s a point in our lives where one particular, soul-searching question is bound to arise, especially when things are not going as well as hoped and a certain amount of self-reflection is required: What is the meaning of life? When that same question comes from the mind of a dog, you’d think the answer might be different from the one us humans conclude. But in the new fantasy/drama from Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, A Dog’s Purpose, the answer turns out to be pretty much the same for all of us. And if there’s any director who should know what he’s talking about, particularly when both Hachi: A Dog’s Tale and My Life as a Dog are on his resume, it would be a director whose first name is pronounced Lassie.
A Dog’s Purpose is based on the popular 2010 novel by W. Bruce Cameron; it’s a fairy tale for dog lovers with a story told exclusively from the point of view of the dog and narrated by Josh Gad. When we first meet our canine hero he’s a feral puppy having fun with his brothers and sisters, while Gad, as the inner thoughts of the dog, asks, “What is the meaning of life?” and “Is there any point to all of this?” Before the puppy has a chance to reflect any further, it is snatched by a couple of dog catchers, boarded into the back of an animal control truck, and taken away. While Cameron’s novel goes into greater detail of what happens to the pup and its eventual euthanization, the film wisely skips the whole episode, and before we, and the dog, knows what’s happening, it’s reincarnated as a Golden Retriever.
From there, the story takes us through the various incarnations the dog will experience throughout its existence, always changing breeds and often, amusingly, changing sex. The bulk of the first fifty minutes deals with the dog during the sixties in a small, mid-western town when it becomes the pet of young Ethan (Bryce Gheisar). Ethan names the dog Bailey, and together, boy and dog are inseparable.
After several comical scenes of disruptive behavior from the pup in the household, Ethan grows into a teenager (K.J. Apa) who looks to have a bright future as a football player. But things turn sour. A vengeful prank from a jealous classmate goes horribly wrong, and an accident brings Ethan’s athletic scholarship and future career to a halt. Everything changes, including Ethan’s promising romance with the cute girl-next-door, Hannah (Britt Robertson).
Events in Ethan’s home turn sadly melodramatic. His father loses his job, turns to drink, his parents separate, and Bailey, observing all the family conflicts and arguments around him, simply grows old. Even though the dog will move on to new lives, including a search-and-rescue Chicago police dog – “Even when we played it felt like work” – a lap dog in Georgia – “One of my best lives, really” – and a mostly abandoned yard dog who grows older while chained to a tree, whatever new names it is given, the dog continues to think of itself as Bailey. Events will eventually circle back to the dog’s most special of pet owners, Ethan, when due to a lot of running through familiar looking fields and a really keen sense of smell, Bailey will find himself back in the mid-west and face to face with Ethan, now a grown and somewhat reclusive man, played by Dennis Quaid. And if you’re thinking that now you know everything about the film, it’s all in the trailer.
The appeal of the film will undoubtedly rest solely on whether you’re a dog person or not. Considering that all the adventures are told almost exclusively by the voice of the animal, most of the human scenes have minimal dialog; the whole thing is seen from the dog’s view of events. For the adults, it might feel as though the film never really takes off, though it’s targeted, youthful audience should have no problem with the continual narration when most of what they’ll hear will be delivered from the voice of Olaf, the talking snowman from Disney’s Frozen.
Surprisingly, despite some of the amusing voice-over quips from Bailey as he misinterprets what he sees, there isn’t a great deal of humor throughout A Dog’s Purpose. Ethan’s childhood and teenage years are fraught with so much conflict and sadness that the early slapstick scenes of a dinner party gone wrong as Ethan’s parents invite dad’s boss and his wife over for dinner lose all sense of fun. It’s hard to laugh when you know that the boy’s seriously angry father (Bryce Gheisar) will retaliate. The man’s fears of world events, his anger, his job disappointments and his eventual descent into alcoholism, often with violent results, all hang like dark clouds over all of those early moments; you’re always on edge in case something happens to the dog.
But despite the film’s odd and unexpected dramatic tone, A Dog’s Purpose will still warm the hearts of those who know that going in they’ll be manipulated into tears, and probably more than once. It’s hard enough when a beloved pet passes away – years of happiness ending with the worst day of your life – but seeing it happen more than once over the course of a story is really preying on emotions. But at least the tears most will shed are not always those of sadness. The dog’s reconciliation with his favorite owner, the adult Ethan, is undeniably moving; a pivotal moment seen repeatedly in the TV promo. (What was the marketing department thinking?) But be grateful the film ends as it does. If they’d filmed the conclusion as it happens in the book, there wouldn’t be enough tissues in the box to help you out.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 100 Minutes Overall rating: 6 (out of 10)