A Dog’s Purpose is 2017’s Collateral Beauty (I know it’s early, but I’ve got no better comparison). Holy shit. Killing multiple canine companions under the guise of reincarnation does not make for an uplifting watch, especially when most rebirth “chapters” stand alone. “But it’s fine! Josh Gad’s voice will fill another fleshy dog sack, and we’ll be looking at more cuddly adorableness again shortly!” Oh, I know! That’s established by a nice puppy euthanasia scene within the first minute-or-so. NO! You don’t get to play that card. Everyone involved understood the stakes, and knew that audiences would be reduced to weepy blobs every time another pup bit the dust. This is manipulation at its finest, without the incentive to keep sobbing through the pain.
So, yeah – Josh Gad plays the soul of a dog who cannot die. He talks a lot about his purpose, but doesn’t seem to have one. First, he’s the puppy-mill goofball who gets put down immediately. Next he becomes Bailey, pet of Ethan (K.J. Apa). As Bailey, Gad-dog strikes an everlasting relationship with the owner he’ll never give up, until he’s put down due to old age. We ready ourselves for Gad-dog’s adventure home to begin, but that doesn’t happen – first he becomes a female police dog owned by lonely Carlos (John Ortiz), and is shot on duty (wait, why was it still Gad’s male voice?).
His next Corgi form keeps a college loner named Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) company until she shacks up with a man, and Gad-dog can again pass away of old age. Finally, he finds himself purchased by a neglectful woman who keeps him chained up outside, only to be set free near a now aged Ethan’s farm (played by Dennis Quaid). Everything comes full circle when Gad-dog meets back with his favorite owner, and his purpose is discovered. You won’t believe what it is…..
To be a dog. A narrow-minded, attention deficit dog.
Here’s my biggest question – who is A Dog’s Purpose for? Certainly not grieving pet owners who will have to re-live the death of a beloved pooch on multiple, gut-punching occasions. Maybe kids will enjoy the puppies playing and jumping (they’re all VERY good dogs)? Sure, it’s possible, until parents are forced to stumble through explanations about the afterlife, followed by crippling, existential dread at such a young age.
This leaves adults and animal lovers, who will experience a befuddling take on life that’s over-simplified and almost mocked by an animal who sniffs butts all day. “Yeah, must be nice to eat slippers and judge us humans,” says the anxiety-ridden father just trying to keep a roof over his child’s head. It’s almost patronizing in a way, as Gad-dog can’t understand why people are such complicated beings – and some Chicken Soup For The Dog’s Soul mantra doesn’t change anything.
The through line that holds A Dog’s Purpose together is tangled like a knotty leash, completely missing the point of W. Bruce Cameron’s bestselling source novelization. Unlike the book, each of Gad-dog’s reincarnations acts as cute, fluffy filler material. Ethan is posed as an obvious main character, yet more time is spent running around in other lives that have nothing to do with helping Bailey find his favorite master once again. Lessons are learned, but never repeated. Families are loved, but destiny is never revealed.
A bigger meaning is supposed to tell us that we can ask all the right questions and still get no answer, but Cathryn Michon’s adapted screenplay forgoes emotional entanglement for dog-fart jokes, Gad’s obsession with “people licking faces” and comedy that only works when Bailey recovers the corpse of his family’s hiding cat (dead…he digs up a dead cat). In Cameron’s book, literary-Gad-dog is more a messenger with purpose, but in the film, he’s just a gimmick who dies over and over again.
Director Lasse Hallström leads us through a decade-spanning adventure (it all starts in the 60s), but every period plays like a stuffy, half-baked daytime drama. No characters are allowed the proper time to portray fulfilling arcs. Even K.J. Apa playing Ethan – the film’s most important character – struggles to find the dramatic oomph in his father’s alcoholic abuse.
Apa’s given the most opportunities to shine, but besides an awkward carnival encounter with Britt Robertson’s Hannah, so much undeveloped potential is left on the table. Hallström rarely explores a life without Dad, or a reality without football after hoodlum Todd (Logan Miller) BURNS ETHAN’S HOUSE DOWN. Some seriously HUGE issues arise throughout A Dog’s Purpose, but because we’re watching mostly through Gad-dog’s point of view, it’s hard to truly embrace momentous severity. It sure would’ve been nice to answer those pressing questions, like why Ethan takes Bailey with him and Hannah to Makeout Point (or whatever) – so Gad (as a dog) can make a joke about his owners “wrestling?” Great. Hilarious.
At least “Abercrombie” Apa (the most jacked high schooler ever?) fares better than those mid-story substitutes of A Dog’s Purpose, who – frankly – serve questionable purposes. That’s not a diss on performances in the least, but these characters share the misfortune of separating a larger story without any cinematic connection. Maybe we’d feel for John Ortiz’s policeman if there’d been any established background into his obvious lost love. Maybe we’d sympathize with Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s loner nature if we understood WHY she spends all her time with Corgi-Gad-dog. It’s not like shapeshifter Bailey learns unforgettable lessons during these love-filled years that help unite him with Ethan down the road. Gad’s voice is only used to provide unenthusiastic commentary about wanting pizza, or not understanding sadness, or thinking about his purpose until being distracted by a piece of bacon.
By the time Dennis Quad shows up as old-timer Ethan, we’ve mostly forgotten about the one-time football star whose injury turned him into a lonesome farmer. We’re too busy wiping away tears after another trip through Gad-dog’s misty reincarnation tunnel (depicted by hazy colors and fog). Everything happens by chance, as Gad’s final vessel is purchased, forgotten, and released by a neglectful owner, only to see him remember the smells of Ethan’s farm. No rhyme, no reason – just coincidence and a cheesy ending that’s nothing like the book. You know, because Hallström and company probably thought that ending was WAY too dark – so they added more dog deaths, severed the emotional backbone and hoped smiling puppy faces (RIGHT BEFORE THEY DIE) would be enough to endear audiences.
Actually, after wrestling with my own feelings, I finally understand who this movie is for: dogs. They’re the only audience who might bark with joy as Gad’s monotone voice observes such curious habits of up-ward standing humans. “I walked to the park, now I have to fetch a ball?” OH MAN, I TOTALLY GET YOU LAZY GAD-DOG. “Humans, always with their slippers that taste so good, am I right?!” HAH! SLIPPERS DO TASTE GOOD! Gad’s general dialogue sounds like Jerry Seinfeld doing an impression of what a dog thinks, and it becomes rather dull once we realize he has very little to say. Humans get sweaty when they’re horny, we get it. You think kissing is searching for food. Ha ha. Miniature horses are horse-dogs (how do you know what a horse is). Dog humor. So relatable, right?
So, what is A Dog’s Purpose? To be there. As we should be. There. Just be there. Live in the moment, lick who you love, don’t scrunch your face about the past – NO. YOU DON’T GET TO DO THIS A DOG’S PURPOSE. You don’t get to drop some animal-Hallmark-Eat-Pray-Love statement on us after the preceding gauntlet of emotional torture porn. It’s Collateral Beauty all over again, except with puppy euthanasia instead of Michael Peña confessing his terminal illness in a Whole Foods.
This is a movie so disjointed and out of touch that even the smallest drop of sincerity is mistaken for a barbed rose meant to draw blood. You’re meant to cry, but those tears are never earned. I believe that intentions might have been pure upon idealistic conception, but boy, my soul aches for any poor families who walk into this movie expecting a beautiful appropriation of life itself. At least they’re not marketing this as “The most heartfelt movie of the year…”
*Turns on TV. Commercial says exactly that*
A Dog's Purpose goes the Collateral Beauty route by preying on sadness and not earning its emotional reactions.