‘A Dog’s Purpose’ makes a great novel into a mediocre movie

Juliet Rylance and Bryce Gheisar in ‘A Dog’s Purpose’

“The average dog is a better person than the average person” – Andy Rooney

Disclaimer – As a dog lover, I was very concerned about the videotape that alleges a dog was mistreated in the making of this film.  This review ignores that controversy and is based solely on the film itself.

Based on a best-selling novel (49 weeks on the New York Times Best-Seller List), ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ tells the story of a dog, voiced by actor Josh Gad (Love and Other Drugs, The Internship) who lives a number of lives as different dogs; impacting the lives of various people.

A boy named “Ethan” (Bryce Gheisar) and his mother (Juliet Rylance) rescue a young retriever and  Ethan’s pleas to keep the dog win over his mother almost instantly.  But convincing his father (Luke Kirby) is not so easy.  When Ethan finally wins permission to keep the dog, he names him “Bailey” and from that point on they are inseparable.

Flash forward to Ethan (K. J. Apa) as his high school team’s star quarterback and still attached to Bailey.  Even when he meets and falls in love with “Hannah” (Britt Robertson, Tomorrowland, Mother’s Day and the soon to be released The Space Between Us), Bailey is almost always with the couple.  But events take place that drive a wedge between Ethan and Hannah and they part badly.

Dennis Quaid in ‘A Dog’s Purpose’

Bailey eventually reaches the age where he has to be euthanized but he bounces back in short order, this time as a police dog with a no-nonsense handler named “Carlos” (John Ortiz).  Following a life cut tragically short by a heroic act, Bailey comes back and enters the life of “Maya” (Kirby Howell-Baptiste).  That life is long and happy for Bailey but another transition is coming.  This one results in Bailey as a dog abandoned who eventually finds his way to the now grown Ethan (Dennis Quaid).  Bailey knows it is his Ethan, who he has missed in every other one of his lives, but will Ethan discover that “Buddy” is his Bailey?

This is not the first time director Lasse Hallström has made a movie involving a dog or dogs as major parts of the story; 1985’s My Life As a Dog and 2009’s Hachi: A Dog’s Tale.  Those were different movies and comparisons are probably not useful.  But it is worth noting he has experience in this kind of film and the flaws in A Dog’s Purpose are not from a lack of experience in the genre of dog movies.

Nor are the problems with this film due to the actors who give performances ranging from good to the excellent work of Dennis Quaid (The Words, Movie 43) playing the adult version of the younger Ethan was eerie accuracy. Peggy Lipton and Britt Robertson are both very good as the adult and younger versions of Hannah.

The problem is that there is a fine line between evoking emotion from the audience and trying to yank it out like a dentist extracting an impacted wisdom tooth without any anesthetic.  To call this cloying is to inadequate.

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