Swedish director Lasse Hallström has made a career out of hit-or-miss feature films. One minute he has delivered Golden Globe nominated “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” an international romantic comedy.
The next he is adapting Nicholas Sparks’ sappy “Dear John” starring Channing Tatum.
“A Dog’s Purpose” is the movie version of internet click bait. Filled with “aw” inducing puppy faces, an insurmountable number of sappy heart-string moments that even manage to affect non-dog lovers. “A Dog’s Purpose” peddles the fantasy that our pets are reincarnated into other pets of the same species.
However, this film will always be remembered for that disturbing news of on-set footage that served as the wrong kind of advertising a week before opening day.
The first time we meet Bailey (Josh Gadd), he’s a tiny puppy being licked by his mother. He talks to us about the life of a dog, playing, eating, until one day he is snatched by the pound. We meet Bailey again, but he is a different breed, born anew, and to a loving little boy named Ethan (Bryce Gheisar). They become best friends in the rural farm land of Michigan. Long into Ethan’s teenage years, even with girlfriend Hannah (Britt Robertson), they are inseparable.
Years later, Bailey is a puppy again, this time on the streets of Chicago as an important K-9 sniffing down bad guys with Carlos (John Ortiz). He is a cute short-legged little dog in suburban Georgia and so on. Bailey’s purpose for each owner is different but ultimately fulfilling.
This bizarre screenplay, based on what I assume is a far more fleshed out novel, is clogged with every animal, family film and predictable cliché imaginable. The idea is to capture every possible type of dog life, as witnessed mostly through the animals’ perspective.
That’s where things get tricky, as the narrative trades back and forth from human to Gadd’s voice of Bailey. The bulk of the plot takes place with Ethan in Michigan, as the filmmakers need to ensure we understand “Bailey,” regardless of what furry body he happens to be in. He is reincarnated but retains his memory, smells and understanding each time. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this story is going to end up, but the journey is a little trip down Mayberry Lane for those who like their cinema very PG, with little to no conflict and no signs of cinematic integrity.
Every step of the way “A Dog’s Purpose” tells the audience how to feel. You are spoon-fed endless contrite scenes that you either give into, or roll your eyes with.
Every pet owner will find different sequences touching for different reasons. On the human performance side, there isn’t much to brag about here. Dennis Quaid, the biggest star, has nearly the smallest part. Newcomer K.J. Apa, who gets the majority of the screen time as teenage Ethan is memorable while lonely Kirby Howell-Baptiste is the most endearing.
Besides the need to hug your fuzzy best friend following the movie, there isn’t too much to gain here for the heart, soul or mind. Parents might find “A Dog’s Purpose” a useful tool for younger kids facing the sunset years of a pet. Yet on the other hand, the notion pets come back as new ones might cause more problematic discussion than intended.
Final Thought — A few insights into the world of pets barely keep this sappy family film from drowning completely.