As a species, we’ve all come to terms with the fact that we love dogs more than we love our fellow-man. We can tell that through our films because if a villain kills a few people, we shrug it off like it was a light breeze. However if said villain kills a dog you will hear the audience in the cinema sharpening their knives and they will burn down the place if said villain doesn’t get his just deserves by the end. So yes, it’s not a stupid idea to do a film deliberately targeted at dog lovers simply because there are a lot of them. And A Dog’s Purpose hopes to serve those people.
When Bailey (Josh Gad, Frozen) is born, he wonders what his purpose in life is. After a very short first life, he discovers that every time he dies he simply reincarnates and becomes a new dog. But no matter what life he is living, he dedicates it to loving his owner and discovering what his purpose in life is.
This film is quite squarely aimed at dog lovers, you can tell that by the fact the movie is a love in for canines and the adverts they made for this movie. So it is quite bizarre that they kill a dog off in the first minute. Seriously. The opening credits are barely off the screen as shortly after you see a lot of cute puppies, the one that has a Josh Gad voiced inner monologue is caught and is killed off-screen. And I get why, they need to introduce this story conceit of this dog going from life to life, but it feels pretty brutal and completely out of whack with the whimsical tone the movie is going for.
But it is the perfect introduction because this movie is nasty to dogs. In this movie they got shot and abused to try and get a cheap emotional reaction because they know people will react to a dog getting hurt even if you haven’t built up enough character to earn that reaction. When Marley and Me killed off the dog at the end, it earned all those tears because it built up the connection for an entire movie. This tries to do that quicker and cheaper and it doesn’t work.
Of course this means we get several little self-contained stories and that could work if it very deliberately didn’t focus on one particular plot thread. The opening story is about Ethan (K.J. Apa, Riverdale) finding a dog, falling in love with it and they share their life together for a while. The movie takes a lot of time in this part, establishing all the key player’s in Ethan’s life and trying to make you care for this lad. However they do it all with some of the most clichéd plots you can imagine.
There’s an abusive father, though the film doesn’t even have the guts to blame it on alcoholism because killing dogs is fine but mentioning the bottle is too much, an injury that stops him going on a lucrative football scholarship and even a sweet relationship with a girl named Hannah (Britt Robertson, The Longest Ride) that ends for the most contrived reason. And this is the story they are proud of because they eventually go back to this story at the end with an adult Ethan (Dennis Quaid, The Day After Tomorrow) ending up with a dog that has the soul of Bailey. It’s like being proud of walking to the shops, it’s laughable.
But this makes the rest of the movie feel completely pointless as because you can tell the story with Ethan is not done yet, and you can tell that even if you haven’t seen the spoilerific trailer, you know the movie is simply biding time until it can get back to that. So while these stories with Bailey becoming a police dog partnered with mourning police officer Carlos (John Ortiz, Silver Linings Playbook) and then with Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Downward Dog) as she starts a family are mildly more interesting, you know not to get too invested as this isn’t the real story. The real story is all about Ethan.
And this is all bad enough but it’s made worse by Gad’s voice acting in this. He is constantly at the same level of irritatingly perky and it will get on your nerves at around the ten minute mark. So yes, you do feel like throwing something at the TV about halfway through as he continues to be clueless about everything. Because that is his dialogue. It’s either musings on what a dog’s purpose is, which is such a tiring concept by the end of the movie mainly because it’s pretty easy to work out what this film thinks is a dog’s purpose, or just humour based on Bailey not getting what is going on around him. And that joke isn’t funny the first time, never mind the 50th time.
And I’m really struggling to think of a good thing to say about this movie. Ok, it is quite funny when you realise that despite the fact this movie saying that a dog’s purpose is about basically loving your owner, it is basically about making sure your owner gets laid because Bailey turns out to be an excellent wingman, but I can’t really that’s a great part of the movie. That was me just amusing myself at that point. This film just saunters along and never even tries something ambitious, it’s barely even cinematic. We are at Hallmark movie level here and the fact it made it into a cinema pains my soul.
It doesn’t matter how much you love dogs, you’ll hate A Dog’s Purpose. For a film that is aimed at dog lovers, it is oddly cruel to the animal by finding many different ways to kill them off, including doing it in the very first minute of the movie in an incredibly off introduction. And even if you just want a serviceable movie, you can’t get that as it the film itself writes off half of itself because it has one story it cares about, leaving any of the others it tells by the wayside. I can’t even think of a bad dog pun to express my displeasure, so let’s just say it’s terrible and move on.