A DOG’S PURPOSE – Review
Excuse the pun, but Hollywood has gone to the dogs. And it’s not the first time. Man’s (and the movies’) best friend has been the hero and heroine of many a flick since the old nickleodeon days. The first canine superstar was probably Rin-Tin-tin way back in the silent era. He was a German Shepherd who rescued human co-stars and even a soon to be major studio (the Warner Brothers might not have survived without his box office bucks). Then came Lassie in her many media incarnations, along with other dogs that provided comic relief from Nick and Nora’s terrier Asta to that Saint Bernard behemoth, Beethoven. With the advent of social media there’s been an avalanche of pet adoration, with funny home videos of dogs taking a big bite out of the bandwidth. This helped fuel last summer’s animated smash THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS (primarily dogs, with a few kitties, birdies, and an ill-tempered bunny). Now comes this (mostly) live action ode. But it attempts more than just silly slapstick and tugs at the ole’ heartstrings. This movie ponders the whys and wonders of A DOG’S PURPOSE.
Or should the title be plural, since several dogs share the same spirit, given voice by Josh Gad (yes, Olaf from FROZEN). First he’s an unnamed wondering puppy, quickly scooped up by the city’s Animal Control (and happily sent to that “farm up north” off camera). Then we get to the main story as that life force jumps into a Red Retriever pup that is taken in by eight year-old Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) and named Buddy. The two become inseparable even as Ethan’s parents slowly drift apart. That bond is still strong as Ethan matures into a high school football star (now played by K.J. Apa) who hopes for a scholarship while starting a romance with Hannah (Britt Robertson). Things don’t go as planned while Buddy begins to feel the effects of old age, and soon that chatty spirit goes traveling, finally returning as a German Shepherd lady (!) named Ellie. She’s put to work almost immediately, training to be a police dog, taught by her owner/partner, a lonely cop named Carlos (John Ortiz). Their strong bond is soon cut short by the mean streets of Chicago. Then it’s puppy time again, this time as a cute Corgi named Tio, who’s adopted by a shy college student, Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). The two bond over a mutual love of junk food, which leads to long walks in the park (the vet prescribes lots of exercise) where they meet another college student Al (Pooch Hall). Tio’s along for the romance with Al and his jumbo-sized lady dog, watching as their owners marry and have kids, until time passes by. Boom, another host, this time a big mixed breed mutt neglected and abandoned by a disreputable couple. The dog’s lost, but the sights and sounds seem vaguely familiar. He recognizes Hannah’s scent at a playground and soon stumbles upon the familiar farm now owned by middle-aged bachelor Ethan (Dennis Quaid). He names the dog Bailey, who returns to that playground and follows that smell to the grandmother of those kids in the park, Hannah (Peggy Lipton). Bailey soon embarks on a mission to reunite the high school sweethearts. Could the role of canine cupid be his real purpose?
The human actors in the cast do their level best not to be upstaged by the adorable and energetic canine actors, proving that W.C. Fields adage quite true (“Never work with animals or children”). The best known of the cast is probably the ever charming Dennis Quaid who utilizes his well-worn crinkly smile to great advantage as the good man who’s endured his share of bad breaks. We’re really rooting for him and hope he gets one last chance at love. That chance is epitomized by the dazzling, forever mod Lipton, an actress deserving of many more high-profile roles. Their younger counterparts are also very engaging. Robertson, a real rising star, embodies the ultimate wholesome “girl next door”. As for the “Ethans”, Apa is both tender and tough (defending his dysfunctional family), while Gheisher melts our hearts as he bonds with his best pal (and he’s got excellent taste in literature…faded 50’s issues of “Captain America: Commie Smasher”). Ortiz is quite compelling as the tough, emotionally wounded cop who finally begins to heal. Howell-Baptiste and Hall have believable chemistry as the young couple brought together by their pets. Kudos to Luke Kirby who brings a real bit a pathos to a part that could easily be a standard villain, that of Ethan’s dad who turns to booze when his dreams are crushed. Oh, and Gad is thankfully more cute and endearing rather than cloying or obnoxious as the “dog spirit”.
This story, credited to five (?!) writers too often wallows in sentimentality when it’s not trying to deliver laughs with sophomoric slapstick (dinner time calamity with the boss and his wife…who’ll go face down into the mashed potatoes?) and gross-out gags (butt-sniffing and doggie flatulence). The anthology structure really slows the story’s pace, as we wait for Gad’s voice to change bodies and meet new owners (it could almost be titled “Marley Can Wait” ala the Warren Beatty 70’s classic). Being a comic book fan, I was reminded of DC’s “Deadman” (hmmm, “Deaddog” would’ve been quite off-putting). Director Lasse Hallstrom gets some good performances out of all the cast, while making sure the dramatic moments aren’t too mawkish (hey, this is a step up from those Nicholas Sparks adaptations). Much like the recent MONSTER TRUCKS, this is a flick squarely aimed at kids, one that is more watchable than expected. And if adult animal lovers can get past the recent behind the scenes video scandal, they should have a pretty good time. Though it’s not great cinematic art, for those audiences, A DOG’S PURPOSE, for lack of a better word, fulfills its purpose.
3 Out of 5