Film review: A Dog’s Purpose

David Gritten / 04 May 2017

Saga film critic David Gritten can’t totally resist the canine charm of A Dog’s Purpose.

Any film about a dog is clearly aimed at people who love dogs, and there must be an awful lot of them – A Dog’s Purpose, a US movie produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, and starring Dennis Quaid with an all-American cast, was recently the number one box-office hit in China.  That’s a lot of dog lovers, right there.

I’ll put my cards on the table: I rather like dogs, though not to the extent of wanting one of my own, with all the trouble and time that might involve. Still, I sat contentedly through A Dog’s Purpose (overlong at two hours) and sighed indulgently at its shameless sentimentality. It’s precisely nobody’s idea of great film-making - but this is a movie that sits at your feet, places one paw on your knee and regards you with a sad-eyed, imploring expression. You can’t quite dismiss or totally resist it.

The story itself is sweet-natured. Bailey, a beautiful golden retriever devoted to his owner, a young boy named Ethan. They stay together through Ethan’s adolescence, but when Bailey dies he is reincarnated three times in succession - as different dogs with different owners. The story comes full circle in a manner it would be churlish to reveal.

But in the course of his multiple life-spans Bailey becomes a female German Shepherd, a corgi and a Bernese mountain dog. His owners include a Chicago police officer, a likable college student and a couple who effectively neglect him.

A recurring motif in A Dog’s Purpose is the questioning of what life means and why we - humans and dogs alike - are all here. Bailey (whose ‘thoughts’ are voiced by actor Josh Gad) mulls over these big issues, and frequently questions what is happening to his doggy self. There are amusing moments, tear-jerking and even occasional dramatic ones, but the film’s main ambition is to be endearing.

It’s directed by Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat) who indulges his preference for rich sumptuous colours; he adores vast spaces of greenery, and loves it when autumn leaves start to fall. Hallstrom isn’t afraid of seeming old-fashioned; indeed, watching A Dog’s Purpose can leave you assuming the last 60 years of history had never happened. (These days, that doesn’t automatically count as a harsh criticism.)

This gentle, well-intended film is utterly devoid of contemporary irony or cynicism, which almost feels like a bold, radical choice. On the flipside, its narrative is manipulative and sometimes awkwardly written.  Quaid, who appears relatively late in the film, does a highly efficient job as a disillusioned middle-aged man; but overall it’s fair to say the brilliantly trained canines outshine the human characters on screen at every turn. 

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