I don’t know if you’ve realised this, but dogs are quite cute. When they die, it’s really, really sad. Well that’s basically the two modes A Dog’s Purpose, Lasse Hallström’s surprisingly existential pup movie based on W. Bruce Cameron’s novel landing in cinemas this May, travels in and, despite sparks of creativity and darkness here and there, it never moves much beyond low expectations.
Over the course of the 120-minute running time we follow the travelling soul of a dog in various different doggie bodies, starting with Bailey – owned by Riverdale’s non-ginger KJ Apa as a young Dennis Quaid – then moving on to police dog Ellie (yes the dog switches gender, but is still voiced by Josh Gad), then faithful companion Tino and, finally, Buddy.
As family-friendly as the trailers make A Dog’s Purpose look – and it’s so twee in places that your cringe-tolerance will be thoroughly tested – this is the kind of film that euthanizes a cute puppy within the first five minutes. It feels more or less okay, because Gad’s cheerful voiceover kicks in immediately and assures us that dog reincarnation is a thing, but this is just one of the many dark moments the film leans into. There’s abuse (human and animal alike), puppy farms and more hardship besides.
And yes, by nature of being a film about reincarnation, a lot of innocent puppies die. It’s sad, and even the hardest-hearted viewer might shed a tear. This of course makes it feel extremely emotionally manipulative in parts, but the film does so much with each character vignette in such a small amount of time that key moments feel – if we’re being generous – more or less earned.
As a side note, a lot of criticism of A Dog’s Purpose will likely dwell on the allegations (ultimately unveiled as false) of animal cruelty levelled at the film during production, which have become entwined with the marketing and conversations surrounding the movie.
We spend the most time with Bailey and his first family, as young Ethan finds solace and companionship with his dog while growing up in a tumultuous household. As Ethan grows older he begins dating Hannah (Britt Robertson, great here as always) and plans to leave for college. After this section of the movie wraps up it’s hard to bond with other owners, but then the film doesn’t really want you to. That said, it’s the first half of the film that feels most packed with familiar cliches.
Gad is having a bit of a moment this summer with Beauty And The Beast still making zillions of dollars at the box office, and we already know that he gives good loveable voiceover from his role as Olaf in Frozen. He’s wonderful here also, lending a charm and sincerity to Bailey and his counterparts that, helped by some top notch animal acting, allows the audience into the dog’s ‘headspace’ even when the writing leaves a lot to be desired.
The script isn’t the only problem, as the film can at times feel just like being repeatedly barked at for two hours. Gad may be voicing the internalised thoughts of the cuddly canines, but the talent is busy barking at the cameraman and, with such a long running time, it was always going to become tedious.
And the narrative does very little with the central conceit, with the answer to the pseudo-question in the title rendered a disappointing footnote that doesn’t enhance anything that comes before it. Essentially, the movie wants to illustrate all of the ways we can live worthwhile lives, and make others’ (including our pets) lives worthwhile in turn, but that’s not an especially deep notion.
That said, it’s hard to criticise A Dog’s Purpose for being overly quaint and shallow, because the truth is that this is designed to be consumed by children and families. In that sense, it achieves what it sets out to do quite admirably, with a nice message at its heart and cute dogs to coo over while you get there. And try not to cry – I dare you.
A Dog’s Purpose is in UK cinemas from 5th May.