“A Dog’s Purpose,” based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron is an unabashed love letter to dogs and the humans who are lucky enough to be loved by them. Yes, it is sugary and sentimental, but so is the devotion dogs and people have to each other. These are not cats like Garfield, who often scorn us and bestow their favors sparingly, or an “Every Which Way But Loose” orangutan who can outwit us. These are dogs, who have nothing but time to play with us or comfort us and are always overjoyed to see us.
Bailey, voiced by Josh Gad of “Frozen,” is born (puppies), then quickly caught by animal control and (subtly) killed. Then, he is born again, and adopted by a boy named Ethan. Bailey is curious about the world and his place in it. Much of the gentle humor of the film comes from Bailey’s efforts to understand human behavior, and much of the sweetness comes from his realization that his purpose is to love, to help, and to remind humans of something important they tend to forget and dogs are very good at — to appreciate this exact moment, to inhabit it fully.
Bailey and Ethan adore one another, happy to play together all day. Bailey gets up to the usual dog mischief, but the real problem in the family is when Ethan’s dad becomes depressed, begins to abuse alcohol, and becomes abusive. By that time, Ethan is a teenager, in love with Hannah (Britt Robertson), and being recruited for football scholarships to college. But things go wrong for Ethan, and Bailey gets old and tired…and is reborn as Ellie, a K-9 dog partnered with Carlos (John Ortiz), and then as a corgi adopted by a lonely student (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and then as a neglected dog abandoned by his owner’s boyfriend.
There’s nothing subtle, surprising, or sophisticated about this story, which is as chewed over as a dog’s favorite bedroom slipper. But audiences will be won over by the unabashed affection for its subject and funny-only-after-the-fact incidents that will be only too familiar to anyone who has ever lived with a dog. Its belief in the deep connection between humans and the devoted dogs in their lives — and did I mention the puppies? — help it connect to us as well.
NOTE: The release of some leaked behind-the-scenes footage appeared to show one of the dogs being mistreated by a handler in order to get him to do a stunt. The producer of the film has made a detailed statement about the incident, accepting responsibility for some mistakes but also making it clear that the leaked footage was edited to distort what happened. Anyone concerned about the treatment of the dogs on the film should read his statement in its entirety.
Parents should know that this film has tense, sad, and dangerous situations including very sad deaths of beloved pets and character injured, alcohol abuse, depression, domestic abuse, neglect of animal, fire, law enforcement violence including kidnapping, shoot-outs, and rescue, some potty humor, and some disturbing images.
Family discussion: What do you think a dog’s purpose is? How is it different from a human’s purpose?
If you like this, try: The book by W. Bruce Cameron and the movies “My Dog Skip,” “Marley & Me,” and “The Three Lives of Thomasina”