Movie Review: ‘A Dog’s Purpose’
Oscar-nominated director Lasse Hallstrom is unapologetically a creator of cinema sappiness. Whether it be The Cider House Rules or What’s eating Gilbert Grape, Hallstrom turns the sentimentality dial so far up that it makes Spielberg look like David Fincher. And it would be no coincidence that A Dog’s Purpose comes from Spielberg’s very own Amblin Entertainment evident by the movie’s old fashion “aw shucks”vibe. It reaches in every corner of nostalgia and schmaltz. Unfortunately, for what the movie tries to accomplish in heart it fails in story. The movie may be a sweet spot for dog lovers, but you won’t be able to shake the manipulative soppy narrative.
Based on the book of the same name, A Dog’s Purpose follows the lives of Bailey the dog who is reincarnated as different dogs through history. Being adopted mid-20th Century by all American rural boy Ethan, Bailey and his owner share over a decade of memories. They are inseparable until Bailey grows old and dies only to come back in a totally different life yet with all memories intact. This movie moves forward in vignettes as Bailey is adopted by different people hoping he finds the purpose of life.
A Dog’s Purpose is made with sincere intentions and at times can be incredibly charming and sweet. It’s most compelling when it shows the bittersweet relationship of owner and dog when life is cut short. It’s a touching yet sad experience that will make dog owners cling to their furry companion tighter or remind previous pet owners of the ones they’ve lost. The rural backdrop is shot quite beautifully although the dog point of view shots are overused. Unfortunately, nostalgia is given the backbone of the movie while poorly written characters and bland stories fill out the rest.
The humans that surround Bailey are hollow without any real motivation that drives them. Newcomer K.J. Alpa carries the bulk of the screen time (at least the heart of it) as teenage Ethan, but even his clean-cut looks can’t hide that he is a pretty dull character. And that goes for much of the cast including Ethan’s sweet but tough girlfriend and a cop who trains Bailey as a police dog in another life. Even by the time Dennis Quiad shows up in the third act, you’ve lost all hope for any fully developed characters. Loneliness seems to be a common theme, but it barely scratches the surface. When the credits roll you will wonder if you just witnessed a Lifetime movie. You may even shed a tear seeing Bailey die but when all said and done was any of it deserved?
Josh Gad returns to the recording booth post Frozen and The Angry Birds Movie as the voice of Bailey the dog. Gad is fine working his usual innocence and curiosity through his raspy speckled vocals but at times you may wonder why we can hear Bailey’s inner thoughts. His narration rarely advances the story other than exposition or a wise crack. He can’t interact with the humans or even other dogs. It’s an unnecessary tool that exists for the sheer pleasure of charm. Giving Bailey a voice takes away from the human’s stories. Each character is given uneven screen time and the time lapse happen so fast that you begin to question what decade you are in. Exploring the changing world is another missed opportunity that could have easily added to character development given the advancing decades.
For better or worse, A Dog’s Purpose parallels many family friendly movies of the early 80s and 90s. It’s Beethoven meets Old Yeller. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, but always sappy. It’s a tear jerker that is difficult to resist. It’s not the worst family movie you will see at the theater and it’s not trying to be anything more than a guilty weep fest. You may get a tear but you also may throw up with the overdose of spoon-fed sentiment.
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