We open on a snuggly pup, nestled amongst its furry siblings, slowly acclimatising to the sights and sounds of planet earth. We flinch in recognition (and slump in resignation) as we realise that, dear god yes, that is the voice of Frozen’s Olaf trying to sell us on this cutesy, cynically family-friendly feature. But wait, the poor homeless puppies are being bundled into a van whose signage – slammed into shot – reassures that the dog warden will more sensibly safeguard their futures… Annnnd now they’re dead. Wait, what?!
Fear not, A Dog’s Purpose has your shock/horror covered. Reincarnation is the inconsistent glue holding this dubious mess together. Fido’s soul is relocated with a clinical efficiency Chances Are’s Louie Jeffries would have been delighted by: there is no pearly gate queue jumping required. Though adult audience members may require a longer transition to stop choking on their popcorn and mouthing WTF? over the heads of their oblivious offspring. Still, before too long a handsome Golden Retriever will appear to be slowly dying of thirst in a retro automobile and all will be right with the world again.
Aforementioned Retriever is rescued by Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) and christened Bailey. Or Bailey, Bailey, Bailey from the dog’s POV. Bailey and Ethan form an instantaneous bond which is strained but not broken by Ethan’s reluctant dad (Luke Kirby) and, later, Bailey’s own whirling dervish antics. Yet, as dog and boy mature, their bond becomes one which sustains both. Through the gradual decline of Ethan’s dad’s mental health, the burgeoning love between a teen Ethan (K.J. Apa) and his supportive girlfriend Hannah (Britt Robertson) and the dramatic implosion of Ethan’s dreams, the pair stick resolutely together.
The Ethan and Bailey story is the core of the film and the closest A Dog’s Purpose comes to having a definable purpose. W. Bruce Cameron’s novel was the source and the author joins the production as a member of the screenwriting team. Unfortunately neither he nor his colleagues could find a way to enliven the generic dialogue or give the talented young cast of this segment anything tangible to work with. They are treated merely as placeholders, and signposts for Ethan and Bailey’s inevitable reunion, which is a frustrating waste of their craft.
From here the film continues to meander along in its curious V/H/S style. With shaky found footage replaced by unimaginative framing and literal horror replaced by the horrific knowledge that there will be at least two more incarnations of Bailey to suffer through before that weepy leapy bit from the trailer finally gives you permission to exhale and escape home. We found that employing the guess how the dog will die technique helped to pass the time. Although conflicting reports of animal actor mistreatment on set and the subsequent controversy make this game less appropriate for The Littlest Hobo inspired police dog episode.
Lasse Hallström has a track record of directing powerful heart centred movies. And this knowledge, combined with Dennis Quaid’s earnest turn as Ethan in the final segment, makes one wonder if there were not a better film languishing on the cutting room floor. Regrettably we can only judge what remains and what remains is a lopsided mess. Worse, it is an irresponsible mess. Milking scenarios of animal cruelty and neglect for dramatic effect without assigning consequence or pausing to educate and inform. A waste of opportunity as well as a waste of talent.
A Dog’s Purpose opens across the UK on Friday 5th May