Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 120 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 12+. This film about a dog being reincarnated numerous times includes a fair amount of death as the animal’s spirit cycles through various bodies; dogs are caught and put down, are shot, become elderly and pass away, are neglected, and experience various other things that may be emotionally wrenching for young dog lovers. Also a few romantic subplots among the film’s humans, including some kissing; humans get drunk and smoke cigarettes; mentions of other characters passing away; sexually themed humor and gross bathroom jokes; some teen bullying; and discussion of the tense political environment of the ‘60s.
‘A Dog’s Purpose’ tries its hardest to make audiences weep with its story of a dog’s spirit being reincarnated through various bodies as it wonders about the meaning of life. That’s a lofty goal that doesn’t pay off in this mostly trite film.
By Roxana Hadadi
“A Dog’s Purpose” has had a rough go of it over the past couple of weeks, with the release of a video that claims to show a German Shepherd dog being mistreated on set and a messy public battle between the film’s creators defending it and viewers of the video denouncing their behavior. If you know anything about that ordeal, “A Dog’s Purpose”—which is crafted to, more than anything, make you cry—feels at best disingenuous and at worst manipulative. The feeling of authenticity just isn’t here.
The film tells one central story and then a few different shorter ones in its attempt to answer the question of the main dog, Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad, of “Frozen”), who narrates the film and is its sole point-of-view character: “What is the meaning of life? Are we here for a reason? Is there a point to any of this?” Through various lives over a number of years, Bailey tries to figure it out as he is transferred from body to body, waking up each time and exclaiming his shock at being “back.”
He goes from pound puppy to Red Retriever to German Shepherd to Corgi, trying out various forms and ending up one time as a female dog, which makes him think he’s “missing parts” (a bit that is supremely weird when Gad’s essence is still male, a clumsy storytelling moment that feels like a lost opportunity to finally tell the story from the perspective of another gender).
Mostly, though, Bailey just wants to reunite with his most formative owner, Ethan, who first got him when he was an 8-year-old boy (played by Bryce Gheisar) and was his primary companion as he grew into a teenager (played by K.J. Apa). Ethan was a perfect owner: He loved Bailey fully, protected him from Ethan’s alcoholic father, and was “leader of our pack,” Bailey says. When Ethan starts dating the lively, intelligent Hannah (Britt Robertson, of “Mother’s Day”), Bailey is overjoyed to see his owner so happy. But when an accident derails Ethan’s plans for the future, he takes it out on both Hannah and Bailey, sparking the series of events that takes the dog away from the boy and starts his journey with other owners.
It’s the stories with other owners where the film really drags, reinforcing its gender stereotypes in frustrating ways. In the main story, Ethan—even as a teenage boy—gets a range of personality traits: He loves his mother, he has a unique relationship with his grandparents, he has plans for college and for his career, he has inside jokes with Hannah, he has interests and dislikes. Ethan is a fully formed character whose life is complemented by Bailey’s presence.
All of the female characters, though, don’t get any of that vibrancy or diversity. Ethan’s mother and Hannah are defined only by their love for him. The future female owners of Bailey are, respectively, a college student whose main activities are eating, complaining about exercising, and asking her dog “Why can’t you be my boyfriend?”, and the other is a stereotypically selfish owner who gets the dog because he’s cute but then ignores and neglects him, keeping him chained outside through all kinds of weather. No female character gets the same depth and interior life that Ethan, his alcoholic father, or the other male characters in the film’s other subplots do. It’s a noticeable unevenness in storytelling that makes the narrative feel particularly and unfairly skewed toward the male experience, not only in the cutesy dog moments narrated by Gad but in the film overall—especially its somewhat distasteful ending, which has adult Ethan played by a grumpy Dennis Quaid (of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”).
It’s those cutesy dog moments, though, that make the film bearable; much like last summer’s “The Secret Life of Pets,” which got solid mileage out of our affection for domesticated animals, “A Dog’s Purpose” recycles through familiar jokes that will still generate laughs. Bailey complains about cats; begs for bacon; notices Ethan’s “sweaty smell” when Hannah is around; wonders if Hannah is hiding food in her mouth when she and Ethan kiss; and falls head over heels for a female dog who doesn’t pay him any attention, but whom Bailey is convinced loves him back.
Why other dogs don’t get communication styles of their own isn’t explored because Bailey is the sole star of “A Dog’s Purpose” and the storyline involving him and Ethan is the only one in which the film truly invests its energy. There are cute elements here, sure, and Gad is emotive enough. But how baldly the film aims to make you weep at its melodrama; how little effort it puts into its variety of female characters; and the existence of that behind-the-scenes video make “A Dog’s Purpose” feel egregiously, uncomfortably artificial.
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