“Old Yeller” was a piker compared to Lasse Hallstrom’s adaptation of W. Bruce Cameron’s popular book. Instead of just one canine demise, “A Dog’s Purpose” offers no fewer than four—most as the result of old age, but one from a gunshot wound (received in heroic circumstances, of course). But not to worry: each time the dog is reincarnated as a different breed, so it never really dies. Whether that’s a comforting notion or a really creepy one is a matter of debate; but the mixture of slapstick, melodrama, and cloying sentiment is tonally jarring, making for a movie that will convince cat people how right they are.
The movie is a four-part affair. The first, and shortest, is a prologue in which a stray, nameless puppy (voiced, as are all the dogs, by Josh Gad), is quickly picked up by animal control and presumably euthanized. (The deed is not shown.) That leads to its rebirth as a Golden Retriever that, after escaping confinement at a puppy mill, is adopted by a Michigan boy named Ethan (Bruce Gheisar), who names it Bailey.
This is by far the longest, sappiest segment in the picture. Ethan has a loving mother (Juliet Rylance), but his travelling salesman father (Luke Kirby) is an unhappy alcoholic who grows increasingly abusive over the years, until after having grown into a teen heartthrob (KJ Apa)—and star quarterback at Townsville High (yes, that’s the name of the script’s Everyburg)—Ethan must protect his mother against him. By this time Ethan has also acquired a charming girlfriend named Hannah (Britt Robertson), but Bailey constantly makes the couple a trio. (She doesn’t mind.)
Unfortunately, Ethan’s life takes a sad turn. Though he has a full football scholarship to Michigan State, a jealous classmate (Logan Miller) plays a prank on Ethan that turns bad, leaving him with a broken leg. That changes his life: he severs his relationship with Hannah and goes off alone to an agricultural school to prepare him to take over his grandfather’s farm. Bailey is left behind, and shortly expires.
But not for long. Reborn again, this time as a Chicago police dog, a German Shepherd named Ellie (still voiced, oddly, by Gad, though now female), it bonds with its lonely human partner Carlos (John Ortiz) whose life it saves during their rescue of a kidnapped girl. But Ellie is shot in the process. (This action-centered segment of the picture is easily the one where Hallstrom’s touch is least secure. The river-set rescue scene is badly choreographed and shot—and ironically it was the sequence that has brought the movie much unwanted publicity in terms of a viral video showing the stunt dog resisting efforts to put it into the swirling water. Charges of animal cruelty have circulated widely.)
Yet another reincarnation follows, with the dog returning as Tino, a Corgi adopted by college student Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). This sitcommy episode follows the little pooch’s experience as Maya meets her soulmate and marries, eventually building a big family before Tino grows old and…well, you know.
In the final round, Bailey has become an oversized mutt that endures years with a neglectful trailer-trash couple before being summarily abandoned. Darned if it doesn’t find its way back to Townsville—whether that’s coincidence or fate, it might make you smack your forehead and shout “Zounds!”—where, adopted anew by the middle-aged Ethan (now Dennis Quaid) and renamed Buddy, it helps arrange a reunion with Hannah (Peggy Lipton) that, of course, develops into something permanent this time. Here the sequence of reincarnations, happily, halts.
The episodic nature of the movie makes it difficult for any of the actors to impress, but Quaid does his customary gruff work and Apa manages a nice impression of the all-American boy, even if Hallstrom stages the entire mini=story blandly. The real stars, in any event, are the dogs, and they all succeed in being utterly winning. Gad’s voice work is unfailingly enthusiastic, even when he has to deliver some really wretched puns and cutesy-poo observations on human behavior. Terry Stacey’s cinematography is bright, and Michael Carlin’s production design evocative—especially in the bucolic Michigan scenes. The insistent effort to emphasize place in the Chicago sequence—with numerous shots of the old Sears Tower and the Hancock Building—is, however, a mite grating.
Even apart from that viral video showing the German Shepherd Hercules being mistreated during filming, “A Dog’s Purpose” would have been an iffy prospect to join the ranks of classic canine movies. It’s basically a cinematic mutt that, to use a well-worn expression, just won’t hunt. But things could be worse: imagine if, like a cat, this dog had nine lives instead of just four, and we’d been forced to watch all of them. There’s a horrible thought.
Extra points, though, for casting a guy named Pooch in a supporting role: he plays Al,