“Purpose” can be a subjective philosophical ideal, but intention typically is not. The only conceivable purpose behind A Dog’s Purpose is to deliver the sort of emotionally exploitative, overwrought melodrama typically reserved for low-budget, faith-based pandering. The catch for storytellers is you have to believe in your message if you’re going to come anywhere close to getting away with pandering on such a level — and, in the wake of an incident of alleged animal cruelty on set, I don’t buy it. If your film’s principal appeal is to dog lovers, there’s no excuse for mistreating its four-legged stars. So, as someone who spent the better part of a decade working as a dog trainer, it would be a drastic understatement to say I walked into this one with a severely negative bias against the production.
However, my critical integrity compels me to objectively assess every movie I watch with the same open-minded commitment to judge solely on the basis of a film’s merits rather than my preconceptions. Unfortunately, A Dog’s Purpose has few merits to speak of. The story, based on a best-selling novel by W. Bruce Cameron, follows a dog through a canine karmic cycle of reincarnation as he (occasionally she) tries to ascertain the meaning of life. If this high-concept existential premise sounds promising, don’t be misled. In execution, director Lasse Hallström’s film amounts to little more than an excuse for the sort of manipulative heartstring tugging that belies a lack of narrative substance. The structural problems inherent to this setup should be obvious in that the story is distinctly fragmented and episodic. But the more egregious problem with the script is it necessitates that our protagonist, the only character present for the entirety of the film, will have to die tragically on at least three different occasions before the obligatory happy ending. It’s a lot to handle.
The script, penned by Cameron and four other writers (one of whom is credited with the ill-fated George of the Jungle adaptation, another with a straight-to-video movie advertising the line of “Bratz” toys — which, in my humble estimation, signaled the downfall of Western civilization as we know it), is replete with half-baked New Age concepts touching on weighty existential questions in the most cursory manner conceivable. The film ends on a misguided appropriation of Ram Dass’ famed axiom “Be Here Now.” By the time that phrase was uttered by Josh Gad (narrating as Bailey, Ellie, Tino and Buddy) in the film’s final frames, I had long since found myself firmly wishing I were anywhere else. My nieces had expressed a strong interest in checking this one out. On leaving the theater, I immediately called my brother to advise him against such a decision. It’s a sad film, and I certainly teared up on more than one occasion, but the employment of such emotional coercion is far sadder than the story. Kill a dog once, and you have a deeply affective narrative device that has worked well in films like Old Yeller (or even Turner and Hooch). Find a contrived excuse to kill the same dog three times, and you have garbage like A Dog’s Purpose.
Throughout this styleless, uninspired piece of manipulative tripe, I wanted to turn to the children seated around me and explain that the German shepherd they saw fearlessly saving a drowning girl was coerced in the process by the irresponsible filmmakers and animal handlers whose lifestyles are being financed by the tickets these kids’ parents just paid for. The company responsible for the dogs in question, Birds and Animals Unlimited, frequently supplies animals for the film and television industry and has long been a target of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for alleged mistreatment of the animals in its employ. The American Humane Association, which provides the trademarked “No Animals Were Harmed…” certification at the end of film credits, has stood by the actions of the filmmakers (this organization is entirely unaffiliated with the Humane Society of the United States). I’m open to any rational arguments that could justify the footage of the dog in question (Hercules, who is in fine health) being forced to perform a stunt against his will. But what argument can there be that the shoot was properly managed when the dog’s head can clearly be seen submerged for at least four seconds. And yet, had A Dog’s Purpose been a great film, I might still have suggested that audiences see it. However, it’s an awful film in absence of the aforementioned footage. Given knowledge of this unfortunate incident, I can’t remotely recommend this film in good conscience. Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril.
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.