Most movies about dogs finish with the dog dying at the end: it’s a very sad affair and you cry. This movie? This movie does it four times over. Released January 27th, Lasse Haelström’s A Dog’s Purpose is a two-hour film starring Josh Gad as his soul lives the lives of five different dog breeds over the span of a half-century. As a preface, I don’t really like dogs. Maybe it’s because I got chased up a tree by a big black one when I was young, maybe it’s due to the fact that I loathe saliva being all over my face; regardless, I went into the movie not expecting much. For the sake of this review, I’m going to stick to calling Gad’s character Bailey, as that’s the dog he spends the most time as.
The movie starts, under-whelmingly. Bailey talks vaguely about philosophy and purpose and we’re launched into his first life. This one is short and is used to set up the premise so that we can care more about the second life and the people around him. And it works for that purpose. In the end, Bailey is picked up by a dog shelter and his life ends. While it’s unlikely this is a deliberate jab, it’s hard not to relate it to the director’s words about PETA and kill shelters, in response the the animal abuse allegations that came out just before the release of the movie. Anyway, Bailey returns to the void, before being sent to the body of a red Labrador (the dog on all the posters). This is the most important like as it introduces our other central character: Ethan Montgomery. In this dog life, Ethan is portrayed by two actors: Bryce Gheisar as boy Ethan, and K. J. Apa as teen Ethan. This is Apa’s first big American movie, coming from a New Zealand soap, and now starring in the Netflix original show Riverdale. Gheisar does a good job as young Ethan, and it’s obvious he bonded well with the red Lab puppy. It’s mostly jovial and the child actor doesn’t have to portray a lot of emotions, which definitely helps with authenticity of his scenes. It’s just a child enjoying his new best friend.
Apa really steals the stage in this movie. His acting is down to earth (rare coming from a soap background!) and despite the tired clichés that fill the entire story, you really grow attached to his character and his relationships. One of my main gripes with the movie is that it is very predictable. You don’t always know how something is going to happen, you just know that it will eventually happen because the plot demands it. Granted it plays the beats very well, but it always ends where you know it has to end. The characters are all very two-dimensional and are really only redeemed by some amiable casting for actors, props to John Papsidera for that.
The third and fourth life aren’t particularly noteworthy. In a nutshell: third life teaches Bailey that life isn’t all about playing, and the fourth life teaches Bailey that love changes everything, or something along those lines. The acting is okay in this part, but the two parts could really be merged into one, or the fourth one gotten rid of completely to resolve the third’s open ending. In his fifth and final life of the movie, we’re given a red herring where Bailey is initially adopted by a lady who chains him outside and then neglects him until her boyfriend takes Bailey out to a rail yard and abandons him. He then (using his tracking skills from his third life, as well as magical coincidence) finds his way back to Ethan’s farm house, where Ethan, now middle aged and lonely (and played by Dennis Quaid), resides. Once again using his magic snout, he finds Ethan’s former flame and reunites her and Ethan, and eventually manages to convince Ethan that he is, indeed, Bailey. Happy ending, happy tears.
One thread and character that was interesting was Ethan’s father. He’s the most rounded in the movie, but he is never really given any time to develop his character, and in the end is just portrayed as a sad drunk who ruins his family with his drinking. I think the movie could’ve benefited from this thread being followed, as Luke Kirby does an excellent job in the role, with what he’s given. It would’ve given the movie a darker tone, for sure, but it would’ve added some desperately needed substance to the plot.
The cinematography is forgettable in this movie. It works, but only does that. Nothing impressive nor bad, it’s just average. The soundtrack is the same way, it’s exactly what you would expect from this sort of movie. It’s moving, it swells when it needs to, and it quiets down. As with the cinematography-it works. To it’s credit, the editing of the movie is superb. The cuts are well timed and the beats are on point.
Verdict: While its heart is huge, its story is very bare of substance and feels tired. But you’ll still cry through it. See it if you love dogs, sappy romance involving dogs, or just want to have a good tearjerker. It’s a people-pleaser, and in the end, achieves its purpose.
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