There’s perhaps no easier way to wring tears out of an audience than to show the death of a beloved pet. The genius of A Dog’s Purpose—and the only remotely clever point of this relentlessly uninventive film—is that, in tracing one dog’s soul across decades as it’s reincarnated in various canine bodies, the filmmakers, adapting a novel of the same name by W. Bruce Cameron, have discovered a narrative format that allows them to keep returning to this same well over and over again, getting several tear-jerking moments for the price of one as each new incarnation of the pooch passes away.
The dog’s first major manifestation, and the one which defines its titular “purpose,” is as Bailey, a spunky golden retriever adopted by Ethan in the 1960s. Played as a young boy by Bryce Gheisar, as a teen by K.J. Apa, and as an adult by Dennis Quaid, Ethan grows up with Bailey by his side as he falls in love with Hannah (Britt Robertson), becomes quarterback of his high school football team, goes to carnivals and drive-ins, and generally embodies the tritest all-American clichés this side of a John Mellencamp song. Ethan suffers setbacks that put an end to his football career and his relationship with Hannah—and while Bailey dies of old age, to be reincarnated as a female police dog, a college student’s corgi, and a neglected St. Bernard/Australian shepherd mix, it’s clear that fate will eventually bring him back to Ethan.
Directed by Lasse Hallström, A Dog’s Purpose has the gooey, inauthentic feel of a Hallmark Channel movie. The script, a product of no less than five screenwriters, knows how to manipulate an audience’s emotions but does so mechanically, making only the barest attempts to ground its schmaltzy melodrama in anything resembling genuine emotion. The film is at its best when it drops its narrative pretenses and simply indulges in puppy porn, as in a completely gratuitous scene of Bailey playing with a small donkey. But more often than not, the film operates in bathetic overdrive, exploiting the genuine affection people feel for their pets for cheap emotionalism: In one scene, Bailey, in his permutation as a K-9 unit, takes a bullet for his police officer.
Perhaps all these emotional manipulations might seem more benign if not for the recent emergence of a tape showing the mistreatment of one of the animals that worked on the film. The video shows a clearly frightened German shepherd named Hercules forced into a pool of rushing water to perform a stunt and later having his head submerged underwater. While the dog was, by all accounts, physically unharmed, the footage highlights that, at its core, the film is about the subordination of canines to humans.
A Dog’s Purpose is narrated by Bailey (Josh Gad provides the cloyingly cutesy voice of the dog’s interior monologue), who regularly wonders about the meaning of his life, such as why he was put on Earth. The film’s answer to such questions is that he exists to make Ethan’s life better—to be there for him, to comfort him, and to reunite him with his high school sweetheart (played as an adult by Peggy Lipton). He’s not on this planet for his own joy or fulfillment, but rather to serve the needs of his master.
The film imbues Bailey with a human-like consciousness and ability to question his own existence, but it does so only to offer comforting reassurances about dogs’ natural servility. This is undoubtedly a common, if not always conscious, presumption among pet owners, but the leaked footage highlights the potentially dangerous implications of this attitude. If canines exist for our enjoyment, then it’s only right that they should be forced to perform for our entertainment, whether they want to or not.