If you love wonderful scenes of cute dogs doing heroic deeds and playing with boys and girls, you’ll love “A Dog’s Purpose,’ the new film by director Lasse Hallstrom. The film will warm your heart and may even convince you to go out and buy a dog (if you don’t already have one). Yes, the film goes a bit too far with all the sentimentality. And, yes, as a piece of cinematic fare, you can do better. But the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Let’s start off with the storyline of “A Dog’s Purpose,” which is based on a novel by W. Bruce Cameron. It’s the story of a devoted dog (voiced by Josh Gad) who discovers the meaning of its own existence – to make humans happy – after living, dying and then being reincarnated as another canine. And so the cycle continues over the course of five decades. Each time, the dog comes back as a different breed, and sometimes even a new gender. But each time, there is one constant: the dog is just so lovable and cute.
This is where the film starts to veer off course with all kinds of dog clichés. You see, the problem is that we’re given a deliriously stereotypical view of the world, in which dogs do everything they’re supposed to do – they play games with kids, they fetch items for you, and they comfort you when you’re feeling blue. And then, they do all the super-hero feats that have been ascribed to them for centuries – in this film, the dog rescues a child from a raging river and tries to save people from a burning home. It’s completely acceptable for one or two dog clichés to make their way into a film. But when you’re presented story after story, and the clichés just won’t go away, that’s when you literally start to cringe in your movie seat.
At times, it seems like the key goal of the film is to help you dredge up your sentimental childhood memories. The filmmaker, Lasse Hallstrom, knows how to tug at your heartstrings, and that’s why the film can be so difficult to watch at times – you know what’s going to happen next, and yet, you’re powerless to stop it. You feel the tears welling up in your eyes, and you want to hold them back, but you won’t be able to stop. You just want that dog to do the right thing every time.
The main story that will have you crying at the end is that this one dog – Bailey – stays true to the one child (Ethan, played by Bryce Gheisar) who owned him first. Decades later, we meet up with this child and now he’s a man (played by Dennis Quaid). He sees a dog that acts just like his beloved Bailey that he had as a kid. But it can’t be, can it? Oh, but of course, you know the answer to that! It’s been five decades, but the special love between boy and dog has been kept alive in the heart, and now they are reunited in the end. Cue the sappy music.
In short, the film is not bad filmmaking, it’s just that it’s so emotionally manipulative. But there’s something great and wonderful about the film – and that’s how unabashed it is about showing us life in America as it once was. Back in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, America was picture postcard beautiful. Neighborhoods were family-friendly, everyone owned a pet, and the future seemed bright. It wasn’t yet a tired cliché to talk about a dog as “man’s best friend.” You could take a pet dog with you on a date with a cute girl, and nobody would think twice.
And then reality happened. If you think about American pop culture today, everything has to be dark and twisted or sarcastic and ironic – even the cartoons. There’s no such thing as “baseball and apple pie” America anymore. Kids aren’t eating apple pie –they’re off smoking (legalized) pot, and nobody watches baseball anymore because all the athletes are cheaters who use steroids.
Thus, for all the critics who have unanimously panned “A Dog’s Purpose,” here’s a message: the film is perfectly OK, but the filter has changed. It’s no longer allowed for a critic to love a film that’s essentially G-rated without any irony. There always has to be a “dark and twisted” version of America nostalgia, or some epic plot to save the world. There’s nothing particularly epic here, unless you count the act of being reincarnated over and over again as something that meets the definition of epic.
The other “problem” with the film, according to the critics, is that the humor is just so ridiculously childish. The film uses humor to explain all the unexplained actions of dogs – why they love to eat food in the trash, what they’re really thinking when they stare up at you with their big puppy dog eyes (you’ll cringe when you hear the answer), and why they love to play with humans. Some critics have called the humor “insipid.” Ok, but we can still enjoy some jokes about dogs and bacon, right?
So here’s the final answer to the question if “A Dog’s Purpose” is worth the watch: if you have young kids and want them to have a moment to explore America as it once was, and to enjoy lots of scenes with dogs, then by all means, take them. You don’t get many chances like this. This is pure Americana. The answer is yes – it’s worth a watch but only under these conditions – don’t go on a date with a cute girl to this film and don’t go with your drinking buddies.
So what if the film is sugary, sentimental and clichéd? The film is great as a way for a family to spend some time together. It’s a different type of “escape” – not an escape to intergalactic space empires, but an escape to a time and a place in America that no longer exists. Forget the haters. They probably own cats, anyway. Do yourself a favor – go to a cheap matinee and see “A Dog’s Purpose” with someone very young. It could change your life and it will most certainly change theirs.