A DOG'S PURPOSE

This post was originally published on News Cult in January 2017.

Starring: Josh Gad, K.J. Apa, Britt Robertson, John Ortiz, Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton

Director: Lasse Hallström

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Rating: PG for a Few Moments That Make a Dog Whimper

Release Date: January 27, 2017

A Dog’s Purpose asks, “What is a dog’s purpose?” Before answering this question, it is important to note that A Dog’s Purpose presupposes that reincarnation (or at least canine reincarnation) is a fact of existence. If you have been a dog parent multiple times and ever believed that one of your more recent pups was somehow the same as one of your older ones, then this film has your back. This is the third in director Lasse Hallström’s dog trilogy (following 1985’s My Life as a Dog and 2009’s Hachi: A Dog’s Tale), so I feel confident in determining that he imbued that belief into every single frame.

The film seeks its meaning by tracking the lives of the dog (voiced by Josh Gad in each iteration) over approximately 50 years. The lifetimes that are traversed include an all-American football-slinging, farming sixties family; a seventies detective buddy story; a Jheri curled-style romance in the eighties and nineties; and a reunion narrative in the 2000’s, along with a few danger-filled detours along the way. The canine perspective remains endearing, with much humor mined from the dog growing into its new bodies, often switching genders (the breeds range from Red Retriever to German Shepherd, down to Corgi, concluding as a St. Bernard-Australian Shepherd mix).

But the quality of the film is only as strong as the quality of each of the human stories. The most prominent is also the most cliché-ridden. Ethan (K.J. Apa) is a wholesome high school quarterback with everything going his way until an accident derails his guarantee of an athletic scholarship. Rectify’s Luke Kirby does what he can in the mandatory drunk dad role, and Britt Robertson is a minor delight as Ethan’s best gal, but this whole segment is a slog due to painfully unimaginative writing.

Much more fun, and offbeat, are the two middle segments. John Ortiz is a natural as a ’70s detective in the K-9 unit. His pursuit of a divorced dad who has kidnapped his daughter is a weirdly engrossing mix of family friendly and urban grit. That is followed by a portion that is a bit like The Cosby Show, except with a lot more perms and a-ha.

A Dog’s Purpose is never so cloying that it ought to be resented. Yet its storytelling is all too often so surface-level that it does not matter how lovable dogs are. But it concludes nicely when it returns back to the farm, redeeming a story that had little going for it in the first place. Let’s put it this way: Dennis Quaid has a face and physique that were made for carrying bales of hay, and Peggy Lipton makes the case that all cinematic love stories should henceforth star 70-year-olds.

A Dog’s Purpose is Recommended If You Like: Dogs More Than You Like Good Storytelling, Pretending That Your Dog’s Internal Voice is That of Olaf from Frozen

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Games of Fetch

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