Synopsis – A dog looks to discover his purpose in life over the course of several lifetimes and owners.
My Take – As an avid lover of animals, especially cats & dogs, I was quite surprised by the controversy around this film. Days before the film’s release, TMZ.com posted a November 2015 video showing Hercules, the German shepherd being placed in the water for a key scene in the film, followed by another shot of the dog going underwater and the crew moving to rescue the dog. In my research, I’ve watched this video several times and read or seen commentary from the film’s stars and its director (who all say they have no knowledge of any mistreatment of any animals on the set) and various commentators (with a variety of opinions). PETA called for a boycott of the film, however, the credits do include the usual American Humane Society disclaimer that they monitored the animal action and “no animals were harmed.” Universal Pictures promised an investigation, yet the mixed critical reception did not help the film receive the necessary opening numbers. Shamefully, I went into this film with low expectations, as right from the trailers I pretty much knew what the film was about. What I wasn’t expecting was a fun family film with so much heart & emotions for all ages to enjoy. I guess it’s pretty evident that most of the negative reception has been coming from people who haven’t actually seen the film, and like most social based news now days decide to share & comment on any topic without understanding anything about it. Trust me, if you’re a person who currently has or ever had a close connection with a canine, this Lasse Hallström directed film will serve as a validation of feelings. For those who have ever seriously wanted to know what dogs are thinking, well this film won’t have those answers, but it sure will show you a side of love you may have never witnessed or understood before.
Based on the acclaimed bestselling 2010 novel of the same name by humorist W. Bruce Cameron—the same author, behind ‘Eight Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter,’ the basis for the popular television comedy from the early 2000s, the story follows the spirit of a dog (voiced by Josh Gad) throughout several of its reincarnated dog lives. His 1st time in the world as puppy doesn’t last very long, but the next time he comes back in a different body, he is happy to be found & named Bailey by the 8 Years Old Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) and his mother (Juliet Rylance) and becomes the part of their family despite an earlier resistance from Ethan’s father (Luke Kirby). As time passes, Ethan (K.J. Apa) grows up to become a popular high school footballer & starts dating Hannah (Britt Robertson), about whom Bailey becomes really fond of. However, due to some incidents, Ethan’s life turns around & he heads to college, leaving Bailey behind with him mother & grandparents. As time passes, Bailey grows old and happily passes away. Bailey comes back again and again and again. Each time Bailey comes back as a different dog breed (or gender) with a different life purpose, but his memories almost intact, he has different experiences with different owners, from the tough cop named Carlos (John Ortiz) to a loving but lonely college girl, Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) to the ignorant Wendy (Nicole LaPlaca). Still trying to find the meaning of his life & purpose to fill, Bailey even after all this time, still has memories of an owner, who many years ago treated him more than just a pet. Stranded in the open, following a familiar smell of his old friend, a donkey, Bailey has to find the person who he is meant to be with, an older Ethan (Dennis Quaid), and seek all his answers. There are many films that focus on a dog’s world but not about what the dog is actually thinking and this film does the opposite, by focusing on the dog and a dog’s place in our world. This perfect story will make you laugh, cry and question the true purpose of life. The film literally portrays so many different ways that dogs are treated! The Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström first appeared in American radar through his popular 1985 feature ‘My Life as a Dog.’ and the superb ‘Hachi: A Dog’s Tale,’ starring Richard Gere, here, he does an amazing job at building up raw emotion in a short amount of time, something done very similar in the heartfelt ‘Marley and Me’. Yes, this film’s theme is that one dog is reincarnated many times and those transitions, though heartbreaking and sad, are done tastefully with a simple blurring of the image into a kaleidoscope of colors that blends into the next scene. Adults will understand this as “transitioning” and young children will just get a sense we are on to the next story. Watching Bailey die, each time, brought tears to my eyes, but watching him reborn and still searching for that answer gave us hope. The concept of reincarnation, the various experiences of a dog through a dog’s eyes, the relevance of the dog to its owners’ lives all allow the spectator to be completely absorbed and drawn into each of the subplots. There was diversity both from the perspective of the owners shown and of the dog breeds -and yet every one of the subplots tugs at your heart (or should somehow). The small amount of people in the theater actually cheered at the end when Ethan figured it all out. Bailey’s purpose was to play and show others how to play and laugh, save and protect those that loved him and who needed loving without even knowing it, and unconditionally love his person. However, just because Bailey is a dog, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the most important philosophical question and yearning that all humans have. That is “what is my purpose”. He seeks this answer throughout all of his travels in each life. Yet, ending-up unfulfilled which results in another attempt to start all over and do it all again in a different forms with different human owners.
This film also manages to make you laugh at the same time. At one point, the dog inadvertently swallows a valuable coin one character intends to proudly display during a visit that very evening by his employer. Naturally, the dog is befuddled by his owner’s hovering while waiting for the coin to reappear from the animal’s other end—a situation which has been investigated countless times in other films and television comedies. Any laughter produced by the sequence might be inspired more by the audience’s familiarity with the situation more than the sympathy felt for the characters involved in the picture. It certainly took me on a roller-coaster of emotions and it was so well done that I can say I haven’t felt so immersed in a film in a really long time. The feelings you develop for the characters and turmoil you see them go through makes you realize just how special animals are and how amazing of a companion they truly make. The scene where Bailey/Ellie swims in the water is my favorite because it is an action-packed scene that is exciting but also very sad. Another reason to bring up this scene is that it is the scene that has elicited accusations of animal abuse by some animal activists. In this scene, you can clearly see the dog is not in distress. The dog is happy and greatly enjoying the activity as is the case for almost every single scene in the film. Throughout, you see things happening to the main character which would make anyone want to adopt a dog. The message of dog adoption is so strong that it makes me wonder why animal rights activists are boycotting this film when it does nothing but hurts this wonderful and inspirational story to come out and support animal adoption. This film promotes that dogs and all other animals are sentient beings with thoughts and purposes in life. They also highlighted many issues surrounding the treatment of animals and their well-being. We are truly lucky to have them in our lives and sometimes you may not realize how much they care about us and how much they are willing to do for us. It really gives you a moment to appreciate your own pet or inspire you to get a little buddy of your own. Coming to the negatives, did I really think this tale was going to be a deep well of twists, turns, and surprises? The answer is no. However, I had hoped that such a straightforward tale would have had a little more balance to the mix. The film is told in four tales that turn out to be one full circle (which is cool), however there was an imbalance in how much they spent on each story and their purpose. The first tale about Bailey gets the greatest emphasis (and time), building up the relationship between man and dog. However, the other tales are far less developed, much more rushed in terms of character building with a focus on fun and quick lessons. Don’t get me wrong, these stories do have a place, I just expected more contributions from these parts based on the trailer. I also expected Dennis Quaid to have a bigger role, but the veteran actor is surprisingly a small part of the the grand scheme of the film. His fans shouldn’t expect much from him in this film, as his part is reduced to maybe fifteen minutes of a quick wrap up to what could have been a deep relationship. Yet the biggest dislike for me in this film is how depressing it can be at times. We all know this film was going to have tearful moments, but never did I expect to see so much suffering and detailed scenes of the dog passing. The after effect of the scene will linger for a bit, but the cuteness and happy themes eventually return. However, I’m not the biggest fan of a dog death scene, let alone three of them. As the narrator the film, Josh Gad was terrific! He brought heart & emotion to the role & made us actually believe that we are listening to the inner thoughts of a dog. In supporting roles, Britt Robertson, K.J. Apa, John Ortiz, Bryce Gheisar, Juliet Rylance, Luke Kirby, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Pooch Hall, Peggy Lipton, Gabrielle Rose, Michael Bofshever, Nicole LaPlaca, Primo Allon & Dennis Quaid play their parts well. On the whole, ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ is a predictable, yet emotional, wide ranging, funny family film that touches our hearts without being manipulative.
Directed – Lasse Hallström
Rated – PG
Run Time – 100 minutes