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Review: A Dog’s Purpose (2017)

A Dog’s Purpose (2017)

Directed by: Lasse Hallström

Premise: Based on the novel by W. Bruce Cameron. Narrated from the point of view of a canine (voice of Josh Gad), a dog is reincarnated several times as different breeds to different owners. Throughout his lives, the dog attempts to figure out his purpose in life.

What Works: People who love animals will enjoy A Dog’s Purpose. The movie has the look of a pet food commercial and everything in it is designed to exploit what dog people love about canines. The movie is a string of sequences that tap into the cultural narrative of dogs as man’s best friend such as a boy playing fetch with his canine friend, grandpa feeding the dog scraps from the table, and sentimental goodbyes when the young dog owner departs for college. All of these sequences are calculated to tug at the viewer’s heartstrings and people who get sentimental about dog videos on Youtube will find these moments irresistible. A Dog’s Purpose also includes a storyline in which the dog is reincarnated as part of a K9 unit. This further plays to the sense of absolute loyalty that people love about their dogs. The first half of A Dog’s Purpose is fairly strong as the animal is adopted by a young boy (Bryice Gheisar) and the two of them grow up together. As a teenager (K.J. Apa), the boy meets a girl (Britt Robertson) and the two of them fall in love with the dog ever present in the background. The love story plays well and Apa and Robertson have a likable romantic rapport. This young man’s coming of age story is dramatically satisfying but not because of the dog. The boy’s father, played by Luke Kirby, has a drinking problem that worsens with time and eventually the young man and his father have a showdown that gives the movie some gravitas.

What Doesn’t: There aren’t many surprises in A Dog’s Purpose. This is a case of the trailer revealing the whole movie. But even viewers who hadn’t seen the trailer ought to be able to roadmap where this story is going in each segment. And that’s the major flaw of A Dog’s Purpose. The filmmakers cobble together elements from movies like Homeward Bound, Turner & Hooch, and Hachi: A Dog’s Tale. As a result, A Dog’s Purpose plays as a patchwork of canine movie clichés. It has a premise with potential but the filmmakers don’t do anything interesting with it and they squander the few innovations. In one incarnation, the dog is taken in by lousy owners who leave him outside and chained to a tree. Throughout his journey, the animal doesn’t learn anything from his experiences or come to any new understandings about himself or human beings. And that’s indicative of another problem with this movie. A Dog’s Purpose plays to human narcissism. For one thing, it imposes human consciousness on a dog through the voiceover. The narration is obvious and superfluous. The film might have been stronger without it. But the human centric point of view of A Dog’s Purpose is troubling in another way. People who genuinely love their pets see themselves as having an obligation to their dogs or cats; they take it upon themselves to provide and care for this animal and there is a general understanding among pet owners that the act of showing kindness to another creature reflects and perhaps improves our own moral character. That’s not the message of A Dog’s Purpose. The dog’s sole reason for being is to serve mankind and be a loyal companion. Even though the dog has its own narrative voice, he is only able to think about himself as an instrument of human interests and the moviemakers don’t take any more interest in him than that. Superior movies about nature don’t suffer from this kind of human presumption; they usually blow a hole through it.

Bottom Line: A Dog’s Purpose is exactly what it appears to be, nothing less and nothing more. For viewers who are a sucker for dog movies, A Dog’s Purpose will give them exactly the kind of sentimental story that’s promised. But the film is unambitious and squanders an interesting premise.

Episode: #633 (February 5, 2017)