The Review: A Dog’s Purpose

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A Dog’s Purpose is similar to Marley and Me, but through the eyes of a dog and not a lame human. Yet it’s a few elements short of being a good boy (movie).

As a general rule, I don’t watch trailers. What can I say, I guess I’m just a real free spirit. My point is, the only things I knew of A Dog’s Purpose before attending the press screening was that it was about dogs, purpose, and that apparently I was going to cry. And given how much I like dogs (who doesn’t?) and crying (who doesn’t?), I was excited.

Who’s a good canine actor? Source: Indie Wire.

Narrated by a golden retriever called Bailey (Josh Gad… who isn’t a dog), A Dog’s Purpose attempts to cast a nuanced eye on family life – and humanity in general – through the naive and untainted lens of a dog. After escaping his breeder’s shelter as a puppy, Bailey is rescued by a young Ethan and his mum. Ethan’s alcoholic father is reluctant to take Bailey into the family home, but after Ethan and his mum insist Ethan will take full care of the dog, he concedes.

From here on in, Bailey and Ethan are inseparable. Ethan is soon in his last year of high school, and has created a little family between himself, his girlfriend, and our puppy protagonist. But home life rapidly deteriorates, with Ethan’s dad’s alcoholism worsening to the point where he becomes violent towards Ethan and his mum, and is forced to leave the house and the family. So Ethan continues his life, various personal struggles and tragedies growing heavier on his shoulders. He begins college and soon gets a sad call: Bailey is passing away. And then Bailey does pass away.

Now I know this seems like a massive spoiler, and you’re probably ready to track my location through Digital Fox’s IP address and then trace it back to me (I know nothing about this stuff) and then come to my home and call me an annoying idiot. But actually, this all happens within the film’s first half an hour. Yes, Bailey, the film’s clear protagonist, dies within the first 30 minutes of his own film.

Well, for about 5 seconds. Turns out dogs reincarnate into other dogs. I know, I didn’t believe it, but I’m pretty sure this is a documentary? Jokes aside, Bailey is blessed with a rebirth (narrated by the same voice), and we watch his new doggy self in another three disparate family tales.

A Dog’s Purpose is marketed as a drama comedy, but fails to achieve either of those.

The idea of shaping a film around a dog and his perspectives is a clever one. If cinema is about exploring humanity, a dog offers a new, foreign eye on how we as people function. But it’s also a great opportunity for comedy.

a dog's purpose review
Two really cute puppies. Source: The New York Times.

When I imagine dogs thinking, I imagine clumsy hilarity, the dog concerned only about his master, food and play – a cycle of thoughts that spin like those two monkeys clapping in Homer’s head. Now I’m not suggesting the narration should have comprised only food and fetch jokes. I just mean dogs are funny; they hold so much comedic potential.

The weird thing is, I think the makers of A Dog’s Purpose knew that. There were lots of times in the screening where I heard a line of narration and was pretty sure it was a joke but wasn’t certain. It was as if the writers were scared of making the film too funny, subsequently holding all jokes at a weak arm’s length. I smiled at times, sure. But I don’t once remember laughing myself – or remember anyone really laughing for that matter. Even the one person at every screening who laughs at every line was limited only to a few chortles.

So director Lasse Hallström chose to avoid creating a hard-hitting comedy, that’s fine. (I’m still not sure if they chose to avoid comedy or are just not funny, but we’ll go with the former.) Surely then the drama is as strong as The Rock in a hypothetical world where he eats Arnold Schwarzenegger?

It’s definitely better than the comedy; that’s without question. There is something reliably heartwarming about the relationships humans have with their dogs, just as there is something reliably heartbreaking about the pains of losing such relationships.

The problem is however that the four separate storylines stunt the movie’s ability to relax into any dramatic rhythm. Each time there is a reincarnation, we have to learn about the new characters and their stories. What this means is we have to learn to empathise and form and emotional connection with them over and over again from scratch.

There is a constant in the film, being Bailey as our narrator. While his body changes, Bailey himself maintains the same personality throughout the movie’s duration. But given that I am human and every film has taught me to empathise with humans, these are the characters I naturally connected with. So by the fourth time I had to learn new character stories and understand new worlds, I was pretty over it.

A Dog’s Purpose also just feels a little unbelievable. And not in the good way.

A key principle in cinema is the suspension of disbelief. This means that even though a film’s content is completely unrealistic, it is crafted well enough so that audiences would believe it possible within the confines of the film’s ‘world’.

For some reason, much of A Dog’s Purpose felt contrived. The whole reincarnation shenanigans never felt natural to me. And other things also felt unbelievable, but they include spoilers so I’ll remain silent. BUT BELIEVE ME.

A dog's purpose review
The many faces of Bailey/Buddy/Tino/Ellie. Source: Wall Street Journal

So what’s the conclusion? Is A Dog’s Purpose worth seeing?

There are redeeming aspects about A Dog’s Purpose. I know I’ve been super harsh because I’m a cruel person, but as a family friendly movie, it is more than fine. It’s lighthearted but touching in parts, and has a nice (albeit fucking lame) ending.

But as for whether it’s actually good, the answer is no. This is pleasant, forgettable viewing.

Oh, and did I cry? Of course I did. Sad dogs = Sad JBM.

My Rating: 6/10

 

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