When watching dog movies, you know what you’re getting yourself into. There’s a sense of inevitability that the dog will die at the end and you’ll cry for a bit, then go on with your day. This formula is classic, movies like “Marley & Me” and “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” being quintessential examples. The movie may seem manipulative (what soulless person wouldn’t cry over cute dogs dying?), but it at least has some sort of story to tell.
Then there’s “A Dog’s Purpose.” Because of an abuse controversy, come have vowed to boycott the movie. I agree with boycotting it, not for that reason but for its uninspired and shameless manipulation.
Instead of focusing on elements that make good movies, like creating characters and stories, the creators of “A Dog’s Purpose” thought it best to put their efforts toward making the audience emotional. However, they didn’t try to stir emotions by connecting them deeply to the film, rather they tried to manipulate viewers by having dog deaths littered throughout the film. I hesitate to call “A Dog’s Purpose” a movie, as a better description would be a “two-hour ordeal of
The film focuses on the soul of a dog (voiced by Josh Gad). After the dog we are first introduced to dies, it’s immediately reborn as another dog in another place. The first dog is Bailey, a golden retriever raised by Ethan (Bryce Gheisar as an eight-year-old, K.J. Apa as a teen) — a kid from a small town.
Bailey is reincarnated many times throughout the film. Next, he’s known as Ellie — a police German shepherd partnered with a widowed police officer, Carlos (John Ortiz) — and then Tino, a corgi adopted by lonely single woman Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Finally, Bailey is reincarnated as Buddy, a Labrador retriever, where he is given an opportunity to reunite with an older Ethan (Dennis Quaid).
Adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name, I hope that “A Dog’s Purpose” is better read than watched. Bailey’s journey through four different lives is too many stories for a two-hour film to cover adequately, especially considering that the story of Bailey’s first life takes up the first half of the film, shoehorning three different lives into a single hour. This recipe makes the story nearly impossible to pull off and the writers crash and burn in a dramatic fashion.
It also doesn’t help that all the stories are uninspired and have been told multiple times before. Essentially, “A Dog’s Purpose” is a marathon of “the dog dies at the end” stories. Whether the dog dies from growing old with the owner or by protecting the owner, these stories are not unique and offer nothing new.
The new element that “A Dog’s Purpose” does introduce to this established formula is the reincarnations of Bailey. But if the whole reason the audience is sad is because the dog dies, reincarnating him makes his deaths seem emotionally empty. Why should we feel sad when he’ll just pop back up in some other place? It’d be nice to feel more connected to the pet owners (other than just feeling sorry for them because their pet dies). But because most of their appearances are so short, it’s hard to appreciate them. The film tries to lead its audience to tears through these minor characters, but this manipulative stunt falls on its face.
The film is saved from being a complete travesty by the half that focuses on Bailey. Relative to the rest of the film, the first half has some sort of development that makes the human characters more than just generic cardboard cutouts.
We get context to Ethan’s life, where he and his mother (Juliet Rylance) contest with his father’s (Luke Kirby) alcoholism and insecurities about not moving up in his career. Teenage Ethan is a star quarterback dating Hannah (Britt Robertson), a girl who was “introduced” to him by Bailey. He must navigate his own life as well, where he has a rivalry with a vindictive teammate.
None of the plot is earth-shatteringly unique, but if this was its own two-hour movie, it would be a typical, inoffensive and somewhat charming dog movie in the same vein as “Marley & Me.” It would be something that you watch once, look at the cute dogs in it and then forget it ever happened.
The second half of “A Dog’s Purpose” runs at a breakneck speed. Each story could be a decent film on its own (a police German shepherd enforcing the law and a dog helping its owner find a relationship), but instead turn into unfunny jokes. Instead of taking the effort to write a good story, the writers focus on trying to cram in as many dog deaths as possible in a desperate attempt to make the audience feel anything. Aside from the reincarnation element, the number of dog deaths in the film make each one in succession lose shock value.
“A Dog’s Purpose” tries to have some semblance of an overarching story when Bailey reunites with Ethan at the end. The final part of the film starts off promisingly enough with a bittersweet reunion where Ethan can’t recognize Bailey. However, this potential is derailed quickly when Bailey tries to get Ethan and Hannah back together. In a film that already wastes so much time, the rushed and anticlimactic resolved relationship plot point is the final nail in the coffin. By the way, Bailey’s “purpose” is not profound in the slightest.
I am a dog lover and I love dog movies. As a critic, I understand they’re not always the best movies, but I’ll still enjoy them because they have dogs. What’s not to love? It would take a truly heinous attempt at manipulation for a dog movie to put me in a foul mood. Needless to say, “A Dog’s Purpose” is that heinous attempt. It’s two ill-fated hours I’ll never get back.