Have you ever wondered what goes on inside a dog’s head? If you’re thinking squirrels, tennis balls, food and its owner’s well-being, you’d be right.
A Dog’s Purpose follows man’s relationship with dogs through an animal’s reincarnation. The protagonist, a dog first in the form of a Golden Retriever named Bailey, is reincarnated four times throughout the film, each time changing breed, gender and name, and significantly impacting its owner each time. The dog experiences numerous relationships with its various owners , ranging from being a lonely graduate student’s place holder for romance to an abused and abandoned pet. Voiced by Josh Gad (widely known as the voice of Frozen’s Olaf), the dog narrates the film exactly how anyone would expect — with an innocent, dog-like goofiness.
The setting of A Dog’s Purpose varies significantly with each of Bailey’s new lives, as he is born into lives with owners from rural America, major cities, university towns and farm country.
Aside from adult Ethan (Dennis Quaid), Bailey’s original owner, and the reincarnated dog (voiced by Josh Gad), the film features many relatively new actors, including Britt Robertson as teen Hannah, Peggy Lipton as adult Hannah and Juliet Rylance as Ethan’s mom. K. J. Apa, teen Ethan, delivers his role flatly. His portrayal leaves us wanting more emotional depth, as many of the character’s dramatic scenes, such as when he breaks up with his girlfriend, are quite one-dimensional.
Although the film’s events are quite serious, the quirky 70’s setting paired with Josh Gad’s goofily-voiced narration resembles a typical Dreamworks film geared towards young children. In fact, Bailey’s tone and personality could pass for a Disney-Dreamworks hybrid of Frozen’s Olaf and Up’s Dug. Despite the silly thoughts running through his mind, Bailey also manages to pull up some deeper notions: existential questions like who is he without his owner? This provides a rocky segue to the big revelation of the film — a dog’s purpose.
As someone who had a dog (who looked very much like the featured Golden Retriever) for the majority of my life, I found A Dog’s Purpose to be realistic in its portrayal of a dog’s mundane, day-to-day acts like stealing food off the table. However, aside from the barely-touched-on idea of a reincarnated dog, the film lacks a sense of purpose. I tend to avoid films with multiple plot lines; A Dog’s Purpose is definitely such a movie. Due to the numerous narratives, there is no suspense or strong desire for Bailey to come to any real conclusion about his purpose. Although the film comes full circle, it is an unsurprising and unsatisfying ending.
Of course, the controversy surrounding A Dog’s Purpose concerning the immoral treatment of their dog actors has negatively impacted the film’s publicity. Many people and organizations, notably PETA, have been boycotting this film in response to a video, released via TMZ, showing a scared German Shepherd being forced into violent waters and being temporarily submerged before its handlers pulled it back up. Much of the blame for this incident falls on a representative of the American Humane Association (AHA), who was hired on set specifically for the purpose of ensuring that the animals were well-treated. This representative, now suspended and undergoing a third-party investigation sponsored by AHA, should have prevented the abuse.
Those involved in the film, notably Josh Gad, Dennis Quaid, director Lasse Hallstrom and producer and animal rights activist Gavin Polone, expressed their sadness over the incident, acknowledging that it was inexcusable. Polone claims that the dog’s anxiety in the video is not due to fear of the water, but to unfamiliarity with a new vantage point used for the scene, as it was used to doing the stunt from another angle. Quaid additionally claims that the video was heavily doctored to make it appear as though the dog was being abused and was intentionally posted around release time in order to create bad publicity.
Aside from the scandal surrounding this film, if anything might influence your decision to watch A Dog’s Purpose, it should be the overall film quality. A Dog’s Purpose seems best suited for young children as a very wholesome family movie. However, to the more mature audience, the film is ultimately flat and lacks compelling plot development.