FILM REVIEW – A DOG’S PURPOSE. With Josh Gad (voice), Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, KJ Apa, Bryce Gheisar. Written by W. Bruce Cameron & Cathryn Michon & Audrey Wells & Maya Forbes. Directed by Lasse Hallström. Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril. 100 minutes.
A DOG’S PURPOSE is a dog’s-eye view of the world. Its central conceit is that dogs don’t die, but keep coming back as other dogs–and not necessarily the same breed. Based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron (one of several writers on the script), it follows the lives of one dog–voiced by Josh Gad–in interacting with humans.
The longest story involves Ethan who, as a boy (Bryce Gheisar), helps rescue a dog and adopts him as his own. Naming him Buddy, they become inseperable, even as he becomes a teenager (KJ Apa) and discovers girls. It’s not all sweetness and light. His father (Luke Kirby) drinks too much and is stifled in his job as a salesman, and the parents eventually separate. There’s also another boy (Logan Miller) who is jealous of Ethan, leading to a nasty prank going wildly out of control.
Through it all, the friendship of Ethan and Buddy endures until the day comes when Buddy is dying and Ethan has to say goodbye. The fact that Buddy is soon reincarnated as another dog–a female German shepherd being trained for the K-9 corps of the Chicago Police–moves the story along. (And it also led to an accusation by the extreme animal rights group PETA of abuse on the set, a charge hotly denied by the film’s producers; moviegoers will have to make up their own minds whom to believe.)
In his various incarnations, Buddy takes on different roles but comes to understand his purpose in life is more than just reveling in disgusting smells and poking through garbage. It is to love and be loved by his human families. In one segment, he is the only friend of a lonely college student, but helps her find true love–as well as some canine companionship for himself. In another, he is maltreated, but ultimately finds a happy ending with an unexpected reunion.
It is a charming movie by a director Lasse Hallström, a Swedish director who first attracted Hollywood’s attention with his 1985 film “My Life as a Dog” and went on to do movies like “Chocolat” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” His films sometime wear their hearts on their sleeves, as this one does, but honestly earn their emotional responses.
Controversy aside, the warning about the film is directed at those with very young or sensitive children.There are some scary scenes in which people (and dogs) face danger. There’s also the repeated death and rebirth of Buddy, and a child unable to appreciate that “it’s only a story” might find it a bit too much. Beyond that, this is a movie that fully deserves the description of “family film,” because it is something the whole family can enjoy even if they’re reacting to different elements.The mostly-unknown cast is fine, and Dennis Quaid and Peggy Lipton show up in the final sequence to bring the story to a satisfying close.
When the real-world news is so unsettling, a feel-good movie like “A Dog’s Purpose” is needed. It won’t change things, but it provides some pleasant, if temporary, relief.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in next month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.