All the best dog movies make you cry — but it’s usually because by the time we say goodbye to the beloved canine, we’ve shared an amazing journey with the pup and it’s a “happy sadness” we feel at the end of the story.
“A Dog’s Purpose” just wears you down.
Sure, we get the obligatory slapstick dog shtick in the form of overturned food carts and disastrous dinner scenes and wacky chases, and there are some uplifting moments, but the overall mood of Lasse Hallstrom’s pup-point-of-view film is … melancholy, sometimes even grim.
Let’s put it this way. In the middle of a relatively family-friendly, PG-rated story, we get a story about a German shepherd in the K-9 unit of the Chicago Police Department, who accompanies his (sad and lonely) human on a chase to rescue a 12-year-old girl who has been kidnapped by an armed and dangerous relative.
Even the dog tells us that particular life wasn’t much fun.
“A Dog’s Purpose” is based on W. Bruce Cameron’s novel, which spent nearly a year on the New York Times bestseller list. Director Hallstrom and the five screenwriters (including Cameron) adhere to the basic theme, which is to follow one dog living several lives through reincarnation. Through life and death and changes of breed and gender, the dog still retains his original identity, but of course the various human owners have no idea their new pup has been around the block.
The first indication of the surprisingly dark side of “A Dog’s Purpose” comes early on, and let’s just leave it at that and move on to the story of Bailey, a retriever who is rescued from the back of a hot pickup truck by a boy named Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) and his mom (Juliet Rylance).
Josh Gad voices Bailey and continues to do the narration for the various reincarnations of the pup throughout the story, and what a marvelous job he does. In fact, Gad’s voice work is more interesting than many of the performances by the earnest but not particularly memorable cast.
When Ethan and Bailey first team up, Ethan appears to be about 11 and it’s 1961. They have a great old time together, but there’s a heavy cloud lurking over Ethan’s childhood, as his father (Luke Kirby) is an alcoholic with a frightening temper.
Cut to about a half-dozen years later, with the teenage Ethan (K.J. Apa) now a star on the football team and in love with the lovely Hannah (Britt Robertson). It should be the late 1960s by now, but it still looks and feels like it’s about 1962. This is one of a handful of times when the timeline (and the actors playing certain characters) seems a bit askew.
The relationship between Ethan and Bailey is sweet but a little ridiculous, what with Ethan taking Bailey everywhere, including on apparently EVERY SINGLE DATE and even to his football games.
Bailey’s life span with Ethan is bittersweet at best. And that’s not even the most depressing section of the film. Remember the whole German shepherd K-9 unit thread?
Not to mention the time Bailey is reincarnated as a Labrador retriever who is sold in a shopping mall parking lot to a girl who appears to be on meth. She takes him home to a rundown shack, where her menacing boyfriend insists the dog be kept chained in the yard, where he is neglected to the point of abuse.
To be fair, there are some happier interludes, and it all builds up to what is supposed to be an emotional crescendo, where certain humans get closure and Bailey finally understands his purpose. But even the “happy ending” is soaked in regret and what if’s.
ABOUT THAT TAPE: A controversy erupted last week when footage was leaked showing a trainer on the set of “A Dog’s Purpose” trying to push a German shepherd into a tank of water, and then the dog under water for a few seconds.
The footage was shot in Canada in the fall of 2015, as part of the sequence in the film involving the Chicago K-9 unit dog. It’s upsetting to watch and it should never have happened, but it should be noted the dog in question, Hercules, was not harmed and is doing just fine.
Rating: Two Stars out of Four