You’ve heard, of course, that a cat has nine lives. A dog, apparently, has five. Or so claims A Dog’s Purpose, the heavily contrived drama based on a bestselling 2010 novel by W. Bruce Cameron (8 Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter). In this sort of Quantum Leap for dogs, a soulful, gender-confused, repeatedly reincarnated canine goes on a magical journey of Hollywood formula. Come with me, and you’ll be in a world of pure manipulation.
Of course, some will hear that A Dog’s Purpose follows an anthropomorphized dog, voiced by Josh Gad (Frozen), through five lives and race to their local theaters. Others will run screaming for the hills. Some will hear lines like “She always brought me something to eat. I almost forgot what it was like to be hungry. Well, almost!” and be unable to suppress an “Awwwww.” Others will retch. If you belong to the former camp, I don’t judge, really. I get the impulse for dog lovers to watch a movie that’s the equivalent of paging through a 16-month puppy calendar. I really do.
Of course, the scandal over a German Shepherd’s mistreatment on the set has put a damper on the fun, but there’s a much better reason to boycott A Dog’s Purpose. It’s terrible. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom (Hachi: A Dog’s Tale), this squishy schmaltzfest begins with Gad musing, “What is the meaning of life? Are we here for a reason? Is there a point to any of this?” Questions two and three will occur to at least a few viewers on the way to an answer to the titular mystery. And listen, you will never guess what a dog’s purpose is.
Before you call me Ebenezer Scrooge, understand that there’s only so much cliché, caricature, and cutesiness an adult human can take, even as it’s punched up with only-in-the-movies stupid pet tricks. The stunt that resulted in the scandal comes in a hero-dog sequence that finds a police dog jumping off a Chicago bridge to save one person, then somehow jumping back onto the bridge to save another person. Even Lassie on her best day couldn’t have managed that. In another scene, the dog coerces a confession from a criminal who easily could have walked away scot-free. It’s that kind of movie.
Hallstrom is no help. Sure, there are lots of dog’s-eye view shots early on, to establish the film’s point of view. But can someone explain to me the sinus P.O.V. shot, in which we look out from inside a dog’s nostrils? Or the isn’t-that-cute logic by which a dog can call vets “white coat people” (LOL!) because the dog knows the words “white,” “coat,” and “people” but not “vet”? This, my friends, is why you hire five screenwriters…comedy gold.
Because of the anthology format, no one actor had to labor very long on A Dog’s Purpose, and, after all, the dogs are the real stars (although Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, John Ortiz, and others pass through). But I’m here to tell you it’s okay to love dogs and hate A Dog’s Purpose, a white-bread movie if ever there were one. And your kids, who admittedly will love it, deserve better too.