Film Review: A Dog's Purpose

Warm, emotionally effective film for dog lovers of all ages traces the many lives of one canine on its soul’s journey through different bodies, breeds, generations and owners.
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Director Lasse Hallström has had a rich film career, having gone Hollywood (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), arty (The Cider House Rules, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Chocolat), and now going to the dogs again (after 2009’s Hachi) with A Dog’s Purpose.

But very inconveniently and just prior to the film’s premiere (which was subsequently canceled), a video emerged showing a German Shepherd on set being prepped for a stunt and forced against his or her will into a pool of rushing water. The initial social-media outcry alleging animal abuse was immediate and harsh, a kind of hysteria that calmer souls among dog owners might more soberly judge as a pet’s familiar resistance to a bath or canine stubbornness. The matter, further fueled by media manipulation of the few seconds of video, is still under investigation. Amblin Entertainment, Universal and others involved in the project have expressed their concern. The dog in question wasn’t hurt and is fine, but surely its acting career is dead.

What impresses is that clearly those involved in A Dog’s Purpose share a love of the animals, an assumption that helps explain why even the staunchest of viewers will get teary-eyed at moments right up to the very end. But the film is no weeper; rather, it’s an uplifting affair that reminds that a dog’s purpose is to “be here now and save us [humans].” Humans have spent much time and money seeking their own purpose (therapy, groups, books, etc.), so how nice to give the dog its turn.

Adapted from W. Bruce Cameron’s beloved best-selling novel, the film tells the story of Bailey the dog (effectively voiced throughout the narrative without corn or sentimentality by Josh Gad), who goes through a handful of reincarnations as different breeds (or mixes) and bearing different names. This evolution unfolds through a series of households and several decades as the reincarnated pet shares reactions to owners and situations and displays (whatever its new body) the affection, generosity, loyalty and endurance dogs are known for.

The story begins in the early ’60s with Bailey as a rescued Golden Retriever pup adapting to the family of young Ethan (Bryce Gheisar). A strong bond grows as Ethan trains, feeds and cares for Bailey and covers up for his pranks. When Ethan (now KJ Apa) enters his teens, he becomes romantically involved with Hannah (Britt Robertson), but a football career-busting injury disheartens him deeply, as do further complications. When the aged Bailey becomes direly ill, Ethan (who reappears much later in the film as an adult played by Dennis Quaid) reunites just in time with his beloved companion.

Passing on to a new life, Bailey becomes reborn as Ellie, a German Shepherd K-9 first responder and loyal helper and companion to Chicago Police Force officer Carlos (John Ortiz), a loner who depends on Ellie both personally and professionally. Working with Ellie on a dangerous anti-drug assignment, he watches her victorious river rescue (the dog stunt that triggered the controversy).

But Ellie is not so lucky when she rescues Carlos from an attacker, and soon reincarnates into adorable, big-eared Corgi Tino, whose owner is socially awkward college student Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Maya finds romance with Al (Pooch Hall), also, to the delight of Tino, a dog owner. But fate always has the upper hand and takes Tino/Bailey to the body of an Australian Shepherd-St. Bernard mix named Buddy. He encounters abusive owners, then life as a stray and dog-pound guest. But matters get much, much better for both dog and audiences.

The story and emotional punch here are greatly helped by Bailey’s guiding voice throughout, whether sweet, befuddled or wise observations regarding the humans and other animals he encounters on this journey. The various episodes move smoothly, connected by brief abstractions conveying the spiritual migrations moving Bailey to his/her various lives. And a surprise ending puts a wonderful ribbon on this cinematic package that does not deserve to be damaged by some hysteria-fueled controversy.

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