A Dog’s Purpose (2017)

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“Lick the ones you love.”

There’s little doubt in my mind that this will be among the most contentious reviews I’ve ever written for two reasons. First, the film has received a thronging backlash both critically and socially against its apparent mishandling of the animals. Secondly, most of you who actually see this movie will likely laugh at the corny jokes, be rattled by the telegraphed drama, and experience that strange tingling feeling of emotion. People love dogs and dogs love people. So, please, hear me out when I say that A Dog’s Purpose is a strange, calculating, and altogether ridiculous film. Its pedantic outlook is as insensitive as its pedestrian approach is thickheaded. Dogs are true ride or die companions; this picture is like a two-hour trek to the vet so your buddy in the sidecar can be put down.

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Every photo you see in this post belongs to one storyline. Ethan’s (Bryce Gheisar) a young boy who stumbles upon a pup soon to be named Bailey (each dog voiced by the passionless Josh Gad). They’re friends, partners, confidants. To have a dog or any sort of pet is an important step for a child; it requires – like a plant or a garden – responsibility and inspires confidence in the ability to care for someone or some thing other than yourself. A Dog’s Purpose subjects us to this position with a limp fervor, the beginning inspired by Rob Reiner before segueing into a Nicholas Sparks romance. By then Ethan (K.J. Apa) is a young man, quarterback of the football team, his traveling salesman father (Luke Kirby) turning into a dwindling drunk and his mother (Juliet Rylance) left to carry the family. Ethan comes to meet Hannah (Britt Robertson) at the fair, they date and kiss and frolic through fields of summer lovin’, all before the predictable plot falls back into place.

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W. Bruce Cameron’s source material would probably make for a decent enough vacation read. Falling asleep whilst turning pages on the plane. Nodding off – book in hand – after too many happy hour drinks. I’m sure it’s harmless and passes the time. But the film adaptation simply does not click its heels in harmony. Lasse Hallström, likely chosen as director for his experience on the much better Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, can’t salvage a script written from the wrong perspective. A Dog’s Purpose conspires against itself by tackling the lofty theology of reincarnation through the dewy-eyed POV of a dog destined to die, then ultimately be reborn, and repeating this process like an animal version of Groundhog’s Day. If it’s true that “slow and steady wins the race,” Hallström’s runt of the litter film comes near dead last.

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Telling a story from a dog’s vantage point isn’t emboldening to the animal kingdom; it’s limiting, precisely because us humans are the ones interpreting the picture. And that’s the frustrating mistake Hallström tries to overcorrect while manning the wheel. Bizarrely enough, I think he could have found success had the script been tighter, the extraneous and empty plot lines been eliminated, and if the story focused on the lifelong spiritual bond between a dog’s soul and his owner Ethan (played by Dennis Quaid in the peculiar and serendipitous third act). A Dog’s Purpose wants to draw handkerchiefs at the rate of Marley & Me while clumsily executing the style of Homeward Bound. That combination doesn’t bode well for a film so easily compared to a piece of complimentary birthday dessert. You didn’t ask for it, don’t want it, and by the look and the taste of things, you can pretty easily surmise why it’s free in the first place. Too much frosting on top of such a plain old cake.

“Is there a point to any of this?”

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

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