Blatantly manipulative, wildly inconsistent, and lacking much in the way of any point, A Dog’s Purpose is a bad pup.
This review contains SPOILERS both open and alluded to.
When one sits down to watch a family film, one expects certain things of it. There may be danger and peril, quiet and sad moments, heavy themes and the like, but there won’t be anything majorly, for lack of a better term, wrong with it. They’re inoffensive, although I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense. They may feature some creepy or heart-wrenching stuff, but the overall tone of the piece remains consistent and light enough that the overall work remains something that can be enjoyed by audiences young and old without having to worry too much about said film scarring anybody for life. This was basically the M.O. of Amblin Entertainment, one of the many production companies responsible for A Dog’s Purpose, back in their heyday of the 80s and early-to-mid 90s.
This goes double for movies involving and centred around dogs. You expect either light-hearted and heart-warming good times involving adorable doggies and silly situations, or melancholic examinations of life and the passage of time involving doggies that get sad or worse at some point. But what you expect more than either of those things is some kind of consistency. If, say, a movie about a dog wanting to become a professional wrestler with his talking monkey manager, that ends with him beating the snot out of a real-life professional wrestler, were to constantly interrupt its momentum of cartoonishly evil villains and pee jokes with deadly serious sequences involving said dog being abused and neglected or for its master to be a raging alcoholic who is strongly implied to have beaten his wife every now and again, you would cry foul. Again, it’s not the fact that the film tried to examine these things at all, it’s that such shifts feel jarringly out-of-place with what came before and after, and that such shifts stick out even more due to those prior expectations and trust. Hence why the ending of Marley & Me has gone down in infamy over the years.
With the notable caveat that the latter film in this next comparison was never intended to be a family film until last minute executive retooling, A Dog’s Purpose is the most wildly schizophrenic family film I have seen since Kangaroo Jack. And it is a family film, given that Lasse Hallström’s direction is insipidly oversaturated and drowning in sentimentality, that its vision of Rural America in the late-60s is so postcard-perfect that Mitch McConnell probably goes to bed every night having wet dreams over it, and that the dog provides a constant narration of proceedings in the voice of a half-asleep Josh Gad. It being based around the premise of watching adorable doggies die over and over again for about 90 or so minutes, is somehow not the reason for my saying that.
Although, that being said, a lot of dogs indeed do die or almost die in this movie. Dogs nearly drown, dogs get euthanised by dog catchers (in the first minute of the movie, no less), dogs get neglected by shitty owners, get abandoned by shitty owners, they die from old age, from having to be put down, from getting shot… at one point, a dog literally dies from sadness because his master goes to college without him! Funnily enough, no amount of twinkly lights and stock sound effects to signal the next reincarnation are really quite able to keep proceedings from feeling like the evillest slasher movie in human existence – the film equivalent of a psychopath cutting the heads off of your childhood stuffed toys and demanding money for his doing so whilst you’re powerless to do anything except watch.
No, even putting aside the question of what family, scratch that, what film in its right mind would want for the viewer to actively choose to sit and watch various doggies live their lives and then be cruelly cut down by the merciless-ever present spectre of Death, A Dog’s Purpose is one of most tonally wild family movies I have ever witnessed. If the whole film were about the philosophical search for meaning in one’s existence, the battle with one’s encroaching mortality, or specifically about using the juxtaposition of dealing with unpleasant and distressing events but being too young and innocent to fully understand these things, just substituting a precocious moppet for an adorable pup, then A Dog’s Purpose might have made some sense.
However, A Dog’s Purpose has quite the problem with scene-by-scene structure. If the film were to have started light and innocent, with sequences of Bailey (the first name our protagonist gets and therefore primarily sticks with throughout the film) chasing after chickens or accidentally swallowing priceless rare coins, and then slowly became darker and more melancholic as the film progressed, in a natural evolution to the designated Feel-Good Ending, then we would have had something. Instead what happens, especially in the second life (which is the longest and forms what little structure the film otherwise has), is that A Dog’s Purpose will have a super-serious scene, such as a Dad (Luke Kirby) succumbing further and further to his alcoholism, that is treated in a deservedly super-serious manner, only to then follow it up with a wacky/cute comedy sequence, like Bailey interrupting Ethan (KJ Apa) and Hannah’s (Britt Robertson, needs to pick way better projects) makeout session because he thinks they’re looking for food in each other’s mouths.
The whiplash is strong, and it only gets worse the further into and more melodramatic the film gets. The madness culmination, and I promise you that I am not making up or skipping over the order of these scenes, occurs in a bewildering 10-minute stretch of film where Ethan throwing his abusive father out of the family is immediately followed by a comedy scene in which Bailey digs up the family’s buried dead cat to present to the mother. That itself is then followed by Ethan’s dad confronting him after an impressive football game and Ethan knocking out an asshole bully who, in the very next scene, sets fire to Ethan’s house. The resultant escape has Ethan break his leg, ruining his chance of ever playing football again, only for the very next scene afterwards to be dedicated to Bailey making friends with a donkey he dubs “Horse-Dog.”
To properly understand the effect, imagine somebody regaling you with a story about how their grandfather succumbed to cancer only to, every two or three minutes, stop and tell an entirely irrelevant and very silly joke before transitioning straight back into that prior story without acknowledging that interruption, and vice versa. Other than the confusion in just how quickly the film bounces between both ends of the tonal spectrum, it creates the impression that Hallström and the film’s five credited writers, including the author of the original novel (W. Bruce Cameron), either had no handle on what they were doing or felt that they’d only be able to keep kids on side for the heavier scenes if they immediately chased them down with the broadest goofiest nonsense possible. Neither is a good look.
More damningly, mind, is that A Dog’s Purpose ironically lacks much in the way of one. For a film all about a dog trying to work out the meaning of life and his specific purpose in it, the ultimate conclusion comes down to nothing more than the title of an Oasis album, delivered with extra emphasis as if it had just dropped the kind of knowledge capable of literally blowing minds. Other than cribbing its philosophical introspection from Noel Gallagher, the main observation that A Dog’s Purpose comes to is “single people are lonely and miserable and will only ever be truly happy if they are in a heteronormative relationship.” Of the main lives that Bailey leads, every single one of them comes back to romantic relationships in some way. As Bailey, he becomes embroiled in Ethan and Hannah’s decades-spanning relationship, one which we are apparently supposed to be so invested in as to find its resolution at the film’s end as a Nicholas Sparks-ian type happy-tearjerker. As Ellie the police dog, his handler is a widower whose uber-macho exterior is implied to be a result of not letting anyone get close to him despite it only making him more miserable. And as Tino, he helps his master Maya find love with a classmate via Tino himself falling in love with said classmate’s dog – this, not coincidentally, being the only time other than his initial years with Ethan that Bailey is truly happy.
…excuse me a second, I just need to finish barfing into my nearest bin from sheer insulted condescension.
“But did you cry, Callum?” I hear somebody from the back yell. After all, this has been precision-designed, rather cynically at that, to wrest all of the tears from you, the viewer, and whatever number of children might be watching this with you. Yes, of course I cried! Why the hell wouldn’t I?! There are doggies, cute doggies, and they get sad and die! I’d have been far more concerned if I didn’t cry at least once! That said, I wasn’t really crying as a result of anything the film itself was specifically doing. I was reacting to base stimuli (dogs and mortality) that saddens me even without having it visualised on screen in front of me, rather than the narrative that the film was attempting to tell. When I left the cinema, I wasn’t thinking much about the film I had just seen; instead, I was thinking more about my own dog, a German Shepherd named Mac, and how guilty I felt for leaving him at home whilst I galivanted off to the cinema all day. For the third straight day, no less, I had left him at home, after a week of just us two whilst my Mum was off on holiday, in order to go out and indulge myself, like a bastard! I mean, look at him! Look at how cute he is! How could a heartless bastard like myself not take him everywhere all of the time?! Look at this face! Look at him chase after clumps of grass! What kind of monster could leave him for a day to go to the cinema?!
Huh? Oh, yeah, the movie. Look, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life has more to say about an individual’s place in the world philosophically, is far more consistent tonally, and is probably more appropriate family viewing than A Dog’s Purpose is. Go watch that instead, I’m serious.