A dog is reincarnated four times on his journey to finding the meaning of life. Each of the lives he leads comes with challenges and joyful moments, but also tragedy. As a golden retriever in the 1960s, Bailey is the adoring dog of Ethan, who he follows into high school and even helps find love. In another dog life, he is a female German Shepherd K-9 named Ellie, and in another, a Pembroke Welsh Corgi named Tino, but when he is reincarnated as a Bernese Mountain Dog, he starts to lose faith in ever finding out what a dog’s purpose is.
A Dog’s Purpose recalls films of the 1990s like Paulie, Fly Away Home, Beethoven, Free Willy, Andre and Homeward Bound as it follows the bond between animals and people. It is so retro and unapologetic in its sentimentality that it feels more akin to these films than its more recent ‘dog movie’ counterparts in My Dog Skip and, of course, Marley & Me.
The opening shot of A Dog’s Purpose is a bunch of cute puppies. Between moments like this, its storyline as outlined above, and the vast array of its essential (exceptionally well-trained, by the way) canine cast, it is clear that the movie is keen to tug at your heart strings. Sometimes watching the dog die over and over gets too much but suffice to say, it won’t leave you crying like other dog movies have.
Kids (more so than adults, who probably still don’t really know who he is) will be delighted to hear the vocals of Josh Gad as the narrator given Gad’s credits in Disney productions like Frozen, in which he plays singing snowman Olaf, and the recent live-action Beauty and the Beast, where he plays LeFou. While he does a fair job at conveying the (overwrought) emotion of the story, his voice is distractingly imitative of Tobey Maguire.
Children will also derive humour and joy from the dogs’ amusing thoughts, quirks and habits – even adults won’t be able to help themselves chuckling at times, especially if they’re pet owners themselves. But you can’t help but ask yourself, why is this film trying to be philosophical? The whole reincarnation plot and ‘what is the meaning of life’ question feel unnecessary, phenomena added just so that the film is different from its predecessors. There are also added contexts such as historical tensions arising from its early Cold War backdrop, and issues such as alcoholism and abuse, that feel like they’re woven into the narrative forcibly to add a degree of sombreness and sincerity. People just came to see dogs do cute things, and there’s no shame in admitting that’s all it’s about.
Look, the movie is cute and sweet. Its running length at one hour and forty minutes is never so long that it’s unwatchable, and the multiple storylines will keep you engaged (although the first act does drag). It totally uses all the movie clichés but it’s so easy to fall hook, line and sinker for them.
Why two and a half stars then might you ask? Well, it is not particularly well written, directed or acted, and its emotional manipulation is so blatantly obvious as to be perturbing. Families and dog lovers are going to love this and come out of the cinema with all the feels, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good movie.