Last Wednesday, just in time for advance screenings that evening, TMZ broke a story about animal abuse on the set of A Dog’s Purpose.
The above link features a video of a German Shepherd being forced into a tank of rapidly churning water. That story appeared in my Twitter feed mere moments before the house lights dimmed. I tried not to let this knowledge affect my experience of the film, but by the time the scene in question arrived, I was already well and truly off the wagon. Even setting aside accusations of animal abuse (which the cast and crew have taken great pains to deny), A Dog’s Purpose is exactly the kind of cloying, empty feel-goodery that exists solely to prey on the soft of heart. It is an appalling display of sentimentality that uses our natural affinity for Man’s Best Friend to spackle over facile storytelling, threadbare characterization, and a message that insults its audience’s intelligence. In short: Dog people beware.
Based on W. Bruce Cameron’s novel, A Dog’s Purpose suggests that a dog’s soul bounces from body to body over the course of many lifetimes. The opening scene features a young pup rounded up by 1950s-era dogcatchers and implicitly put to sleep. (I’m told this scene is much more heart wrenching in the book.) But it’s okay, because the film fades out and back in on a Golden Retriever puppy, and the whole thing starts over. This dog has better luck, finding a home with a young boy named Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) in the early 60s. The two are inseparable, and we spend most of the film witnessing the ups and downs of Ethan’s life through the eyes of his dog, Bailey. When Bailey finally dies of old age, he comes back in the 70s as a German Shepherd police dog. When that dog dies, he returns as a Corgi in the 80s, and so on.
Josh Gad narrates all of this as the dog’s spirit, guiding us through his various lives. His narration is cute and harmless, explaining complex human emotions through the simple understanding of a dog. He doesn’t know the difference between anger and playtime; he misinterprets kissing as a search for food in another person’s mouth. Greasy food is good, rancid smells are better, and dog farts are a way of life. Gad’s narration is almost overwhelming in its sweetness. It’s the kind of narration that could lull you to sleep. It’s also at times enormously patronizing, as screenwriter Cathryn Michon soft-pedals huge emotional beats by having Gad explain them as you would to a toddler. After attacking a criminal, the police dog tells us how much he hates getting shots, conflating his visit to the vet in a past life with the gun the criminal was carrying.
Each vignette is essentially the same: Loyal dogs help lonely people cope with their station in life. Sometimes life goes well and sometimes it ends in tragedy, but the dog’s purpose, so to speak, remains the same. Our final dog finds his way back to a much older Ethan (Dennis Quaid). The dog knows this, even actively seeking him out, and spends the final act trying to convince Ethan that he is Bailey reincarnated. The trailers give all of this away, so the only question left is what the fallout of such a bombshell might be. How would you react if you found out your favorite childhood pet reincarnated as another animal, and that animal found you fifty years later? What would you do? How do you tell people something like this without sounding like an absolute loon?
These, however, are questions the movie has no interest in answering. It’s an inherently religious conundrum, but the film sidesteps the issue entirely. The moment Ethan realizes Bailey has come back to him, we get a final sweeping crane shot of Dennis Quaid playing with his dog on the old family farm. The music swells, and the credits roll. For as much time as this film spends asking questions like “Why are we here?” and “What is my purpose?”, the answer it ultimately comes around to is a halfhearted, “Nothing, I guess.” It turns out a dog’s purpose is simply to be here, to love and be loved. Seriously, that’s it. After ninety minutes and change of Josh Gad presenting us with some of life’s biggest questions, Dennis Quaid literally winks at the camera and says “Life is a mystery!”
I don’t know about you, but I do not go to the movies to be told how to be happy. Plenty of movies fill me with joy, certainly, but any whose sole mission is to remind me that life is good and all I have to do is appreciate the fact grates on my soul. Our lives are finite, and all good things come to an end. These are things that I, as a human being living on this planet, understand implicitly. Selling these ideas back to us in the guise of a 90-minute “hug your dog” story is tantamount to grifting. Director Lasse Hallström—whose films like The Cider House Rules and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen generally peddle similar platitudes with a little more tact—shamelessly swings for the cheap seats on this one. Imagine a pickpocket swiping your wallet and replacing it with a copy of “The Secret”.
Do not be suckered by artists touting life-changing motivational garbage for a nominal fee. They are no better than snake oil salesmen. Your time and money are more valuable than that. Whatever you might consider spending on a ticket to A Dog’s Purpose could be better spent actually enjoying your life. Go to a museum. Have a nice meal. See a local band. Donate to your favorite charity. Hell, see literally any other movie. But do it because it’s what you want, and not because a mainstream motion picture by a multinational corporation promises to lift your heart. Cinematic catharsis is fleeting, but the best revenge against snake oil salesmen is a life well lived.Liked This? Share It!