By Jack Dignan
What is the purpose of A Dog’s Purpose? Is it to entertain? To show cute dogs doing adorable tricks? Or is it to bore the hell out of you? These are the questions I found myself asking during my screening of this strange, strange movie last night, and they’re questions I don’t have answers for. It’s a film so determined to uncover the meaning of life and reason for our existence that it gets too wound up in its existentialism and forgets to find its own purpose for existing. I’m a dog lover, no question about it, but even with a strong love for the animal, this movie did nothing for me.
Describing the story of A Dog’s Purpose is a difficult challenge, not only because there’s very little to describe, but also because you’re going to have a hard time believing what I’m about to say. Its narrative is split into a series of separate short films in a way, each revolving around a dog that gets magically reincarnated over and over. This dog is voiced by Josh Gad, but before you start comparing the film to all your favourite animated dog movies, just know that the dog in this movie doesn’t talk. Well, not really, anyway. Gad provides voiceover, one added seemingly at the last minute in order to make sense of the movie’s bewildering premise. Kids have to know what’s going on as well, you guys.
We open with a newly born puppy hanging out in a litter box with all its fellow brothers and sisters. Gad narrates, attempting to give off a sense of forced innocence as he spits out quotes questioning not only the dog’s reason for being alive, but all of humanity’s. Then, playing it off for laughs, Gad informs us that the dog dies soon after. Yes, that cute newborn puppy, who could just as easily have been the central dog we focus on soon after, finds himself six feet under for no reason whatsoever. Good luck explaining that to your kids, parents. A jarring opening to say the least, but one A-Ha song later and we’re back in business. Gad has returned, his dog having been brought back from death’s cold embrace to take on the role of Bailey.
Bailey’s story begins like any other… with the dog nearly dying of thirst before being kidnapped by a little kid. I really wish I were making this up, guys. In what’s supposed to be a pleasant, kind hearted love letter to dogs, the first 10 minutes opens with vandalism, the death of a puppy, robbery and an alcoholic father melodramatically played by Luke Kirby. This film truly has it all. It’s here that we’re introduced to Ethan. His younger self, who first adopts/steals the adorable Bailey, is played by Bryce Cheisar, while the teenage version of his character, introduced through a weird CGI time jump in which a flat football transforms into a fully pumped up one, is played by Riverdale’s K.J. Apa. Neither of them brings much to the character of Bailey. Apa’s performance feels a little more nuanced, but he’s unable to make this film’s unbelievably awful writing work on screen.
Fun fact: it took five screenwriters working together to write this film’s screenplay. Five. Even with so little hits in each of their filmographies, you’d think at least one of them could bring something fresh to the table, or at least question the film’s morals, but nope. Instead, they add to the tonal uncertainty of the plot, jumping between stories that add little importance to what this film’s going for, if anything at all. Ethan’s story is prominent, taking up the largest chunk of runtime and serving as a reoccurring train of though for Gad’s dog, but it’s largely lifeless. His childhood is generic and, quite frankly, concerning. At least it allowed Brit Robinson to return to the big screen to once again flaunter her yet-to-be-fulfilled talent (I like Tomorrowland!). There’s a good actress inside of her, she just hasn’t had a role to shine in yet.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that, with young Ethan’s story coming to an end, Baily, unfortunately, passes away. Watching a dog die on film, no matter how good or bad that movie may be, is no easy task. This first death scene, since the opening puppy death is best left unmentioned, is emotional. Sure, everything else about Ethan and Bailey’s story is generic, bland and feels as though it was filmed overnight at a studio backlot, but the dog’s death is handled with grace. Manipulative and over-extended grace, but grace nonetheless. A scene that takes place not too long beforehand, too, is also stuffed with a great deal of heart, but everything after this initial death scene is where the film moves from mediocre to downright terrible.
The second story sees Bailey become Ellie, a police dog owned by a lonely field officer played by John Ortiz. This part of the film is… how do I put this? Terrible. The story, while brief, is a complete 180 turn from what the movie started out as. It’s tedious, idiotic, predictable and incredibly out of place, not to mention its extremely uncomfortable closing few minutes that ultimately do this film an even bigger disservice. But for all of its depressing moments, and there are a lot of them, the film tries to make it up to you in a weird way by showering us with sunshine and rainbows in its third story. Gad returns as Tino, a stubby but happy little dog owned by a depressingly single college student played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste. The story sees both Tino and his owner find love, and while it’s cute and innocent, it’s equally annoying and inconsequential.
Alas, everything must happen for a reason (I guess?), and the film comes full circle and full supernatural and its fourth and final story. There’s only so many times I can sit through a dog dying on screen, and by the time the final story came around, I was incredibly glad. While it may start out with a tale that’s borderline dog abuse, it soon evolves into a continuation and conclusion to Ethan’s story, now played by Denis Quaid. By the time this story comes around, you’re meant to feel a joyous, emotional sensation, but all I was able to feel was boredom. It’s the sappiest, weirdest and stupidest story of them all, ending the film on a seemingly uplifting but ultimately creepy note.
It almost feels as if the makers of this movie watched Marley & Me and decided they wanted to do that 5 times over, but in the span of 100 minutes. And it’s baaaad. A Dog’s Purpose tries its best to make you fall in love with the dogs on screen, an easy task to achieve I will admit, but the story (or stories) surrounding them are rushed, manipulative, frequently depressing and simply not fun. I love dogs, but wow, it’s been a long time since we last saw a good dog movie. Even with A Dog’s Purpose hitting cinemas this week, it seems we may need to keep searching for just a little big longer.
Like the article? Make sure to spread the word on social media.
You May Also Like: