“A Dog’s Purpose” is something of a mixed breed. Part “Marley & Me” and part “Lassie Come Home,” in addition to possessing the cinematic DNA of several other canine-themed feel-good films, this toothless but eager-to-please mutt of a family movie follows a single dog — or, for lack of better word, a single dog’s soul — over several lifetimes.
Amiably voiced by Josh Gad, whose highly food-motivated character takes the form of a Retriever, a German Shepherd, a Corgi and a St. Bernard Australian Shepherd mix, the film’s real hero is manifested in several furry forms. A fifth incarnation of the dog is seen, briefly, at the start of the film, before being presumably euthanized off camera. Other deaths are not so discreet.
One dog dying per movie is hard enough to watch. Having to sit through the surprisingly bloody shooting of a police dog and several close-ups of a beloved old dog’s eyes as he passes away on a veterinarian’s examination table is almost a form of audience abuse. Then there’s the shot of a puppy locked in a hot car. Good grief. Adult animal lovers and sensitive children be warned: This movie will put you through the wringer.
“A Dog’s Purpose,” which is based on the 2010 book by W. Bruce Cameron, has been in the news lately for footage leaked from the filming that shows a panicked dog struggling with a trainer who is trying to put the canine actor in a water tank meant to evoke a churning river. Although the film’s producer, Gavin Polone, has responded to calls for a boycott of the film with an apologia/defense of the production’s humane treatment of its animal performers in the Hollywood Reporter, the leaked video has the ironic effect of making the sequence that appears in the finished film seem a bit fake. (A CGI Shepherd was used in one short shot, Polone noted.) As a rule, “A Dog’s Purpose” is hokey but harmless bunkum. No animals were seriously injured, and audiences won’t be either.
This is not the place to debate the theory of canine transmigration. Enjoyment of the film doesn’t require it anyway, and the movie can be read as a simple metaphor for the way we feel about the connection to our animal companions, not a literal exegesis of reincarnation.
Director Lasse Hallström — whose “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” demonstrated the filmmaker’s skill and soft heart for dog tales — does a serviceable job of managing the action, which mainly concerns the bond between a dog and his master (played as a boy by Bryce Gheisar; as a teen by K.J. Apa; and as a grown man by Dennis Quaid). The fact that one half of the relationship is rendered by two different dogs is a touch that is calibrated to tug hearts and jerk tears — at least for the more credulous (or spiritual-minded) viewers.
As for the film’s somewhat grandiose title, “A Dog’s Purpose” opens with Gad, in character, wondering aloud about the meaning of life. Although the movie eventually gets around to proposing an answer to that question, the one it delivers is about as deep as Fido’s water bowl. The purpose of “A Dog’s Purpose” isn’t to solve philosophical riddles but to warm the cockles of dog lovers’ hearts. That, it does — as well as a wet kiss from a slobbery tongue can.
PG. At area theaters. Contains scenes of animals and humans in peril. 100 minutes.