It is likely that animal lovers of the canine persuasion will find a lot to like (and cry) about A Dog's Purpose, a well-meaning but undeniably cornball entertainment that seems a bit too factory-designed to produce tears upon command. It features a strange premise that requires a lot from its audience. The lot that it requires isn't particularly a suspension cable for their disbelief, especially considering the film tips its balance in favor of the full-on fantastical by the end. Rather, it requires a lot of emotional fortitude even to approach this premise. It is based on the surprisingly believable hypothesis that, when a dogs kicks the proverbial bucket, it is reborn within the consciousness of another dog at the point of the newer dog's birth. It isn't hard to accept this premise in terms of wish-fulfillment.
Even those who have never owned a dog will recognize the signs of seeming recognition in the almost-human eyes and cocked-sideways head. Here is a film, based on the novel of the same name by W. Bruce Cameron (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes, and Wally Wolodarsky), that attributes a reason for that sensation. Yes, when this particular dog, whose conscience is voiced by Josh Gad, is first aware of his birth, the dog's life isn't a long one. Right out of the gate, we understand the gravity of this particular situation. When the first reincarnation happens, he is found by Ethan (played two ages in youth by Bryce Gheisar and KJ Apa) in the backseat of a hot car, and his parents (Luke Kirby and Juliet Rylance) ultimately bequeath him the responsibility of care.
These initial scenes between the dog, named Bailey by Ethan, and his owners have some strength to them, but a troubling pattern also emerges: When conflict arises, it is contrived for the dog to fix it. Here, it's a father who slowly disappears into disinterest, paranoia, and the drink, and it's teen years dotted with issues like romance started by a canine's curious nose finding its way up a skirt, a full-blown arson from which mother and son must barely escape, and the parting of ways provided by an awaiting college. The dog dies again, and the narrative simply becomes a depiction of what happens to its subsequent consciences: being a K-9 unit with a shell of a man as an owner, being what draws together another owner with her eventual beau (and gaining and losing a sibling in the process).
It's schmaltzy stuff in ways that are alternately rather sweet (His third relationship is the highlight of the cycle, as he finds his way into the arms of an introverted woman, played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste, whose routine becomes familiar to them both) and cloying (Yes, Ethan reenters the proceedings for a final act that stretches beyond the believability factor to contrive for a moment of recognition and changes the more sobering ending the book apparently had, simultaneously). It stops short of being an insulting Hallmark card vomited onto the screen by the goodness of the characters and the earnestness of Gad's vocal performance, which approaches the dog's intelligence as simple but perceptive, which seems just right. But A Dog's Purpose, in spite of the best intentions, seems too much like an equally simple advertisement for man's best friend to satisfy as a motion picture with much in the way of forward motion or ambition.
KJ Apa (Younger Ethan), Britt Robertson (Younger Hannah), Juliet Rylance (Ethan's Mom), Luke Kirby (Ethan's Dad), Dennis Quaid (Ethan), Peggy Lipton (Hannah), Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Maya), John Ortiz (Carlos), Gabrielle Rose (Grandma Fran), Michael Bofshever (Grandpa Bill), Pooch Hall (Al), Logan Miller (Todd), Bryce Gheisar (Youngest Ethan). Featuring the voice of Josh Gad (Bailey/Tino/Ellie/Buddy).
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and written by W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes, and Wally Wolodarsky, based on the novel by Cameron.
Rated PG (thematic elements, peril).
Released on January 27, 2017.