A Dog’s Purpose

If you can believe it, A Dog’s Purpose was not a harebrained Hollywood pitch by a crazed animal lover. It actually started off as a book by W. Bruce Cameron, about a dog who ponders his own existence as he’s reincarnated over and over again as a dog. Somehow, the book is intended for adults, and was a New York Times bestseller for 49 weeks.

As seen in the movie, Dog, narrating his life in voiceover (Josh Gad), is born again and again. In one life, he’s a Labrador retriever, in another, he’s a German Shepherd. His best life, though, is an early reincarnation as Bailey, an adorable golden retriever adopted by Ethan (Bryce Gheisar). The young boy and pup spend many happy years together, playing fetch and running through fields.

When Ethan grows up (K.J. Apa), life catches up with him: his alcoholic dad is thrown out of the house, an injury costs Ethan his football scholarship, and he breaks up with his girlfriend Hannah (Britt Robertson). After Bailey passes on, he adjusts to his new owners in new incarnations, but life is never quite the same without Ethan.

One day, as an abandoned Labrador retriever, Bailey catches whiff of two familiar scents: Ethan and Hannah’s. He not only adopts the older and greyer Ethan (Dennis Quaid) as his owner again, but manages to bring the long-lost couple back together. It’s as cheesy as cheesy can get, but this being the most ridiculous premise for a film ever, it can’t settle for anything less than Ethan’s total realization that his new dog Buddy is a reincarnation of his beloved Bailey.

Why not? There’s no better explanation for how Buddy found Ethan and Hannah. It can’t be mere coincidence that Buddy can do the exact same idiosyncratic tricks as Bailey. This being a film targeted at animal lovers who will swoon at the mere sight of an adorable puppy, A Dog’s Purpose is calibrated just right for its demographic’s similarly implausible desires and anthropomorphized projections. If only dogs could talk! If only dogs could live forever!

It’s easy pickings, though. The gravitas of pet bereavement is real, undervalued and stigmatized. It’s compounded by the fact that we outlive our furbabies; the grief can be so extreme that some owners pay tens of thousands of dollars to clone their deceased pets.

By manipulating this emotional vulnerability, A Dog’s Purpose has no reason to be a good movie. It can suffice by making its audience cry through the simplest and crudest of gestures, like when the dog is euthanized when it’s old and ill, or when it’s shot in another reincarnation. The story is like a 1990s made-for-TV movie, complete with an abusive, alcoholic father figure, a cruel-for-no-reason bully and one contrived tragic accident after another. But that’s of little importance. Look at that cute puppy! Feel the oxytocin surging through your body! Aww.

Bailey’s existential pondering is equally contrived: the dog is less interested in the philosophy of Descartes than the story needing a rubric to explain why humans love dogs just so damn much. Bailey concludes we’re put on this earth to save someone, as he did for Ethan. This line will make any rescue-animal adopter immediately tear up, because that’s precisely the role they play when they save animals from euthanasia and cruel conditions.

But this is a Hollywood movie, and its sappy message feels artificial and hypocritical considering the long history of animal cruelty on movie sets – including that of A Dog’s Purpose. A TMZ video of a frightened German Shepherd being forcibly pushed into rapid waters during its shoot has caused many animal lovers to denounce the movie.

No matter what, animal lovers – informed and uninformed – will show up in droves to see this kind of feel-good movie.

Originally published in The National Post (January 27, 2017).