Review: 'A Dog's Purpose' a vapid back-and-forth
Starting with Old Yeller and continuing with films like the less iconic Marley & Me, American cinema has a simple trick for an instant tearjerker: give us a boy-and-his-dog story, then kill the dog. A Dog's Purpose ornaments this formula with an existential theme strung across many lifetimes, all from the view of a hungry, mischievous pooch.
Finding Bailey's purpose
What is the meaning of life? Are we here for a reason? These are heavy questions, but they're the first thoughts voiced by the feral pup who will become Bailey, our main character. When his first life is cut short by animal control, he realizes just playing and eating all day hadn't added up to much, and in his next life, his determination to find his real purpose leads him into the home of Ethan, a young boy with a troubled home life.
Through Bailey's perspective, we watch Ethan's father try to improve in his career, Ethan's burgeoning football successes, and his blossoming relationship with a girl named Hannah. But because Bailey doesn't understand many human words, and is more concerned with food and playful antics, it's hard to care when the father descends into alcoholism and abuse, Ethan loses his dreams of pro football when a housefire incident fractures his leg, and he pushes Hannah away in bitterness.
Bailey only seems to somber up when Ethan goes off to college and Bailey dies of loneliness—sorry, I meant kidney failure—and his "boy" rushes to his side just in time to say goodbye.
Tonal issues and story neglect
This is Bailey's most significant life in the film; it has the most character development and strongest emotional tugs. Bailey had thought Ethan was his life's purpose, so what was he supposed to do now that they were separated? While Bailey passes the time before seeing Ethan again—as a police dog, pet to an introverted college student, and neglected St. Bernard—so does the movie. It taunts the audience with hints of story and development with these new owners, but instead packs a conflicting mix of humor, charm, and manipulative heartbreak into the middle of the movie, starving us of substance.
This is where the movie fails the most. I can forgive a movie without substance; if you just want to curl up on the couch with a tub of ice cream, nothing pairs better than a fluffy dog movie that starts cheerful and wells into a bittersweet, lessons-learned sobfest. A Dog's Purpose instead shakes your emotions about like a chew toy. It's not a love letter from human to canine, it's shameless goading of empty sentimentality.
Bailey does eventually reunite with Ethan, and he finds out his old master is just as lonely as Bailey has been. He helps reunite the now-grown man with Hannah, and reaches his enlightenment: the purpose of life is about living in the present moment, and finding someone with which to "be here now".
Since that message is really out of place from a character who spent most of his lives obsessing over the past, ultimately finding his happy ending only when he restores it, we have circled back to the film's problems with contradiction. A Dog's Purpose couldn't stop chasing its tail, so it couldn't convince me it knew what life was about.