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A Dog’s Purpose

Movie Information

The Story: A dog journeys through successive reincarnate lifetimes before being reunited with his original owner. The Lowdown: An emotionally manipulative exercise in heartstring tugging that would have been reprehensible enough even without the recently revealed evidence of alleged animal cruelty on set.
Score:

Genre: Drama
Director: Lasse Hallström
Starring: Britt Robertson, K.J. Apa, John Ortiz, Dennis Quaid, Juliet Rylance, Luke Kirby, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Peggy Lipton, Pooch Hall, Josh Gad
Rated: NR

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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10 thoughts on “A Dog’s Purpose

    • Scott Douglas

      I stated openly in the final paragraph of my review that American Humane (distinct from the Humane Society) has stood by the production, and that the dog was unharmed. This is entirely unsurprising, as their professional reputation and continued source of revenue would be compromised were they to acknowledge that any wrongdoing had taken place on set — while they are a third party, they are far from independent of association with the production.The video is indeed edited, but the footage of the trainer forcing an unwilling dog into the water is both intact and deplorable.

  1. Bob Voorhees

    In a country which “puts down” thousands of dogs yearly, the reviewer cries crocodile tears over a trained show dog which “allegedly” (the reviewer uses this word often) was subjected to a dangerous episode. It is nothing short of amazing how many miles of righteous anger he travels over something not yet proven. It is also nothing short of amazing the level of vituperation he spews over what is basically an innocuous movie (probably aimed at the average 12-14 year old).
    I agree that the movie lacked a plot to stimulate an intelligent viewer, and once I realized this (about three minutes in), I was able to focus on these delightful and talented canine “actors” (check the title again; it really is about them ).
    The reviewer mentions that he worked with dogs for years. Maybe he needs a distemper shot.

    • Scott Douglas

      Mr. Voorhees, your initial comment was simply a link to a report from the animal monitoring agency responsible for protecting the animals on movie sets from harm, one in which that organization defends its own actions. I was already familiar with this agency’s protestations of innocence, and stated as much in my review. In response to having this fact pointed out to you, you decided to challenge my honesty and integrity — your claims of “crocodile tears” on my part suggest that you feel my indignation in this matter is false, a rhetorical position for which you have no rational support or logical basis. Rather than attack your character in the way you’ve chosen to attack mine, I’ll instead bring this back to your original tactic by posting a link:

      http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/feature/

      This is an expose of the American Humane Association published by The Hollywood Reporter in 2013. In this article, a number of productions which the AHA certified as having caused no harm to animals are shown conclusively to have either injured or killed a significant number of animal performers. Here are a few highlights from the piece:

      Life of Pi – Tiger nearly killed, by admission of AHA monitor in internal emails
      The Hobbit – 27 animal deaths
      Eight Below – Dog performer repeatedly punched in diaphragm by trainer
      Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest – Dozens of fish and squid killed by underwater explosions
      Failure to Launch – Chipmunk crushed
      Zookeeper – Giraffe death
      K Mart commercial – Shark death
      Our Idiot Brother – Dog death
      Marmaduke – Dog death
      Flicka – Two horse deaths
      Love’s Resounding Courage – Horse death
      War Horse – Horse death

      These are just recent examples, and the list could go on and on. All of these productions had AHA monitors on set, and all received some level of certification from the AHA attesting that animals were not harmed. In some cases the animal deaths could likely be attributed to natural causes, while in others the negligence and culpability on the part of the filmmakers was readily apparent. In all cases, the AHA was resistant to external oversight or investigation into the circumstances surrounding the animals’ deaths or injuries. This is the organization you’ve chosen to defend, Mr. Voorhees.

      To bring this back on topic, you are correct in asserting that I use the word “allegedly” often in my discussion of these events. I was not present on the set of A Dog’s Purpose when the events occurred, so I don’t personally know the extent of any malfeasance or efforts to avoid causing harm to dogs acting in the film. But what I can say unequivocally is that what takes place in the video that I referenced in my review was unacceptable from my perspective. If you’ve actually watched the video, I would love to hear how you can rationalize the events on display.

      And just to ensure that you understand I arrived at my conclusions in full command of all available facts supporting both sides of the argument, here’s a statement issued by A Dog’s
      Purpose
      producer Gavin Polone, also published by THR:

      http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/gavin-polone-a-dogs-purpose-outcry-what-happened-whos-blame-967160

      Polone proceeds to blame everyone involved in the production without ever directly accepting any personal responsibility as the producer. In the midst of his back-pedaling and circuitous CYA protestations, he makes the following statement:

      “…two things were evident: 1) the dog handler tries to force the dog, for 35 to 40 seconds, into the water when, clearly, he didn’t want to go in; and 2) in a separate take filmed sometime later, the dog did go into the water, on his own, and, at the end, his head is submerged for about 4 seconds. These two things are absolutely INEXCUSABLE and should NEVER have happened. ” (emphasis Polone’s)

      So whether the facts of this matter have been established to your satisfaction or not, these are concrete statements from the man responsible for overseeing all aspects of this production acknowledging that the “alleged” instances of mistreatment did indeed occur and were, in fact, inappropriate. You don’t have to take my word for it, although you probably should have in the first place.

      Now, in the interest of providing a little background and context, I am not opposed to the concept of the AHA — the organization is over 130 years old, and has done a great deal of good work over the course of its existence. The “No Animals Were Harmed…” certification and monitoring process was instituted after Michael Cimino callously blew up horses on the set of Heaven’s Gate. I would rather have a movie industry in which an organization like the AHA exists over one in which there is no oversight whatsoever. I’m also not in full agreement with PETA’s position that no animal actors should be used under any circumstances, as such an approach seems overly restrictive and heavy-handed, at least in my opinion. However, all that having been said, the AHA is currently not performing the task to which it has appointed itself with the competence and diligence that could inspire confidence in their assertion that harm is not being done to animals on movie sets. Moviegoers should not allow themselves to be convinced that AHA certifications are worth anything more that the light with which they’re projected.

      In instances such as the one we’re discussing, there’s plenty of blame to go around; the producers of the film, the animal monitors and handlers on set, and the business that owns and rents animal performers to such productions should all be held accountable for any shortcomings in relation to the care and respect of the animals being employed for the purposes of your entertainment.

      You seem to have enjoyed the performances of the dogs in this film, and I certainly wouldn’t want to deny anyone that sort of enjoyment. I for one found it difficult to enjoy scenes depicting a German Shepherd that I had already witnessed being forced into a wave pool despite his strenuous resistance. But then, I’m a dog lover – I guess your personal mileage may vary, Mr. Voorhees.

      P.S. – Canine distemper is a virus that causes gastrointestinal distress, eye and nose discharge, and lethargy or loss of appetite – it has nothing to do with temperament. If I need shot, maybe you need an encyclopedia.

  2. Scott Douglas

    I owe an apology to Bob Voorhees – I mistakenly conflated he and the original commenter on this post, one Robert Woolley. While Mr. Voorhees is not the person who initially posted the link in support of the AHA, it would seem that his sentiments are similar to those of both the AHA and the original commenter. Mr. Voorhees, I apologize for the unfortunate mixup on my part.

    • Bob Voorhees

      Apology certainly accepted. You can be sure I won’t critique anything you write in the future. You don’t like to be challenged at all. Sign of the times

      • Scott Douglas

        I have no issue with being challenged, I only ask that those who challenge my position have a command of the facts in question that is, at minimum, commensurate with my own. Where I had to draw the line regarding your comment was your assertion that the disdain I expressed at the events in question might be illegitimate — a claim that is not supported by the text of my review. If you’d like to challenge future reviews on the basis of what I’ve written as opposed to offering unfounded supposition as to the veracity of my opinions, I encourage you to do so. If, on the other hand, your idea of challenging an opinion that differs from your own is to suggest that the holder of that opinion is somehow misrepresenting his beliefs, then you’ll find my response to be very similar in nature to the one you received this time around.

        • Bob Voorhees

          Wow! Such puffery! I wouldn’t know where to begin, but it’d be like trying to convince a Catholic priest that Jesus was a gerbil

          • Scott Douglas

            Well Bob, have you watched the video yet?

  3. Bob Voorhees

    I am genuinely disinterested in tech-world, so I really don’t know what this means. Why would one do this after seeing the movie?
    PS I just liked the sound of
    “distemper”s your first response was- well- pretty animated

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