The leaked video involving a reluctant canine has likely blunted enthusiasm for “A Dog’s Purpose,” but that controversy is separate from what a strange, wildly uneven film it is. The intent, clearly, was to tap into the “Marley & Me” audience, but if the question is, “Who’s a good movie?,” well, not this.
It’s hard to blame the filmmakers for trying, since the movie works from the well-established premise that people are saps for a tearjerker involving a mutt. Yet in bringing W. Bruce Cameron’s book to the screen, director Lasse Hallstrom and the writers (Cameron among them) have served up a peculiar kibble of vignettes, wrapping reincarnation and life lessons together in a sappy Hallmark Channel-style doggy sweater.
The central gimmick involves seeking to afford humans a dog’s-eye-view, as seen through the experiences of Bailey, who narrates the film (Josh Gad ably provides the voice, with his doglike enthusiasm occasionally aping his turn as Olaf in “Frozen”).
The problem is that Bailey keeps dying, then returning as different kinds of dogs with new owners, prompting him to ask existential questions about why he’s here. Bailey seems to have found the answer as the happy companion of his boy Ethan (played by Bryce Gheisar as a kid, KJ Apa as a teenager, and later by Dennis Quaid), who grows up with him, despite a difficult home situation and alcoholic father.
Charitably, the dog narration is fitfully amusing, such as when Bailey refers to the school bus as “a big yellow box with wheels.” When Ethan makes out with his girlfriend (Britt Robertson), the pooch assumes he’s probing her mouth looking for food.
Other lives, however, follow, offering assorted views of dog-hood — some as a hedge against loneliness, others more harrowing — that fail to yield much reason to care about the people. Moreover, the stories in the middle have the feeling of biding time before circling back to what’s intended to be the big emotional payoff.
Obviously, there’s a formula here. As constructed, though, the movie feels dramatically stunted, despite the undeniably heart-tugging aspects of a dog’s unconditional affection or having to euthanize one, especially for those who have experienced that bond.
Finally, there’s that TMZ-circulated video, which outraged animal-rights groups by showing a dog apparently being forced to engage in a water stunt. Even if the footage is misleading as one of the producers suggested, the prevailing feeling is how pointless the scene is — a gratuitous police sequence during one of Bailey’s lesser lives as a canine cop.
Mostly, “A Dog’s Purpose” practically barks out its overly calculated purpose, which is to collar pet lovers and the family-friendly audience, catering to the latter with its somewhat confusing religious overtones.
So while the controversy and calls to boycott the movie have hobbled its commercial prospects, it’s almost an insult to our four-footed friends to say setting that aside, “A Dog’s Purpose” pretty quickly goes to the dogs.
“A Dog’s Purpose” opens in the U.S. on January 27. It’s rated PG.