"A DOG'S PURPOSE" — 2½ stars — Britt Robertson, Dennis Quaid, K.J. Apa, voice of Josh Gad; PG (thematic elements and some peril); in general release
"A Dog's Purpose" is a film meant for dog lovers. Dog lovers will be best equipped to appreciate the many examples of dogs doing nutty things in the movie and the most willing to overlook the film's flaws.
Director Lasse Hallström's effort traces the adventures of a single dog (voiced by Josh Gad) who is reincarnated four times over about a 60-year period. Each time, the dog is born as a different breed (and even changes gender), but it retains the same consciousness and memory. It's an interesting idea, but it also means that "A Dog's Purpose" gives you four dog deaths in a single film.
Life No. 1 gets about 30 seconds of screen time before the dog is presumably euthanized after getting caught by the local dog catcher.
Life No. 2 is where things get going. Here the dog is reincarnated as a retriever named Bailey who lives in 1960s Michigan with a happy couple and their young boy Ethan (Bryce Gheisar). Bailey becomes the very definition of man's best friend, sticking close to Ethan as his father's alcoholism gets worse.
Fast-forward a few years, and teenage Ethan (now K.J. Apa) meets Hannah (Britt Robertson), the girl of his dreams, just as he's getting ready to go away to play college football. Then Ethan breaks his leg and breaks up with Hannah, and eventually Bailey gets depressed and gets euthanized again.
From the start of the film, our dog/protagonist/narrator muses on his purpose in life and this journey continues through the rest of the film as Bailey (the dog continues to identify as Bailey, even after being reincarnated as a different dog) lives three additional lives. Life No. 3 is as a K-9 unit dog in Chicago and life No. 4 involves an African-American couple in Georgia during the 1980s.
There's an odd Forrest Gump kind of element going on in "A Dog's Purpose," albeit without all the random celebrity encounters. At every stop along the way, musical cues such as Sam and Dave's "I Thank You" or A-Ha's "Take On Me" bring us into different periods of American history and we get glimpses of the times. The multiple lives device also gives the filmmakers a chance to appeal to all different kinds (or at least five kinds) of dog lovers.
But while the wide-eyed dog narrator device is cute, it also creates some narrative problems. Hallström's protagonist is often along for the ride on a story that is low on conflict, even if it's high on "aw, shucks" moments. And yes, there is also the persistent question of why a movie about a reincarnating animal blew by the idea of using a cat as its protagonist. (The probable answer? According to the New York Times, there have been some a
nimal cruelty accusations associated with this film, but, those aside, the filmmakers are likely dog lovers.)
It would be easy to paint "A Dog's Purpose" as a live action equivalent to last summer's "Secret Life of Pets," but even with a PG rating, Hallström's film is dead set on getting tears from its audience members. Young children might find the emotional content a bit much.
There are some nice ideas at work here and some relatable themes, even if you aren't a dog lover (it's no spoiler to reveal that Bailey's ultimate purpose involves his role in the lives of his owners). But there's a question mark for each of the nice moments, and "A Dog's Purpose" probably worked better on paper than it works here on the screen.
"A Dog's Purpose" is rated PG for thematic elements and some peril; running time: 120 minutes.