Commercials for the new family film A Dog's Purpose give away the entire premise and plot, right up to the final scene. The movie follows the various embodiments of a reincarnating dog as he lives and loves his people over the course of multiple lifetimes.
If you're a dog lover, it's a tearjerker of a pitch. If you're a dog lover with kids, you'll get immediate petitions and pleadings. Even if you just have fond memories of a childhood pet, you're going to get the urge to see this movie.
You'll want to resist that urge. A Dog's Purpose is undeniably sweet and earnest, but there is so much eye-rolling hokiness on display, for ninety long minutes, that viewers run the risk of spontaneous eyeball ejection. I'm serious. They should have a consumer health warning at the front of this thing.
There's also the issue of the recent video, published by TMZ, that appears to show one of the film's performing dogs in distress while on the set. The video has prompted PETA to call for a boycott, and it also pretty much eighty-sixed the studio's promotional campaign. The official premiere was canceled, as was a good portion of the press tour. (There's a lot more to this story than meets the eye, I encourage anyone interested in the video and boycott to read this.)
Anyhoo, on with the schmaltz. The reincarnating dog, voiced by Josh Gad, begins his earthly tour in 1960s Anytown, USA, as a retriever named Bailey. Adopted by Ethan, a young boy with a troubled family life, Bailey and the kid form a deep bond as Ethan moves through his teenage years.
Swedish director Lasse Hallström packs these sequences with every possible cliché of small-town American life. Will Ethan's farmer grandfather wear overalls and dispense wisdom over lemonade? Will Bailey romp past stately red barns into amber waves of grain? Will Ethan win the Big Game as a high school quarterback? What do you think?
It's excruciating, and things just get worse as Bailey is reincarnated into more painfully contrived scenarios. This dog is really something, I tell you. He saves at least four lives in wildly heroic circumstances. At one point, as a police dog in 1970s New York City, he manages to track a missing girl by sticking his nose out the window of a speeding cop car as it races through the city. It's unbelievable! No, really—it's unbelievable.
And that's what sinks this movie in the end. Hallström fails to effectively establish the storybook tone required for us to swallow all these enormous whoppers. The swelling musical score is pure molasses, and all the sickly sweet sentiment gums up any genuine emotional response. When you feel this jerked around by the filmmakers, it's impossible to truly engage with the characters or the story.
All that said, there are some laugh-out-loud moments of pure goofiness when Bailey engages with other animals. These scenes operate on the level of funny YouTube pet videos, and like those videos, they're liable to make you laugh no matter how you're feeling at the time. The Internet is responsible for a lot of high-octane toxic shit these days, but funny online pet videos are an undeniable pleasure of twenty-first- century living. Maybe this is the solution to America's percolating civil war.