No one who goes to see a movie about animals should expect an emotionally honest experience, particularly ones about dogs. Most dog movies are intended to tap into that highly specific area of the dog lover's brain (not everyone loves dogs and those people are broken inside) that will make you cry every ounce of moisture out of your body. Recent examples include Marley & Me, but there is also Lassie, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and even the original Air Bud, which is surprisingly not terrible. These films are exercises in extreme manipulation of the audience, ones that will have you weeping in spite of your conviction that what you're watching is quite mediocre and undeserving of your lachrymose response. Welcome, then, to the most recent entry in this genre, A Dog's Purpose.
Because these films are all essentially the same, each has its own gimmick. A Dog's Purpose comes right out the gate with its minor innovation, which is that the dog at the center of the film (voiced by Josh Gad) is reincarnated throughout the lives of many different dogs over several decades. In a rather tasteless move, the very first dog is quickly dispatched after being born a stray and picked up by 60s-era dog catchers, presumably to be euthanized. Papering right over that, we move on to the birth of red retriever, Bailey, who ends up as the property of the Montgomery family, made up of a mommy (Juliet Rylance), a daddy (Luke Kirby) and a pre-adolescent boy named Ethan. Ethan grows up to be a star high school quarterback (KJ Apa) who dates a pretty girl named Hannah (Britt Robertson). They do stereotypical 60s stuff like go to the fair, make out in the car, and dodge the ire of Ethan's disappointed alcoholic father.
After a jerk classmate nearly burns down his house, Ethan sustains an ankle injury, compromising his college football scholarship and driving a wedge between him and Hannah, with whom he breaks off their relationship. Ethan goes to college and Bailey dies of old age. It's very sad. The film then hops, skips, and jumps its way through a few more dog-carnations: 70s cop John Ortiz's K-9 German shepherd, college student Maya's (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) tubby corgi, and finally as the unfortunate property of a trailer trash family who abandons him. Eventually, Bailey v.5 makes his way back to Ethan (Dennis Quaid), now middle-aged and bitter. All throughout the film, we listen to Gad's narration as he ruminates on his purpose in the world and how it evolves depending on his current incarnation's circumstances.
A Dog's Purpose is pat, sentimental, and glib, but it is certainly very earnest, which is the least you can ask of a movie like this. It is, after all, directed by the king of shmoopy Hallmark-ism, Lasse Hallstrom, whose favorite film of mine is the ludicrous Nicholas Sparks adaptation, Safe Haven (or, as friends of mine call it, Ghost Wife). Hallstrom is second only to Terrence Malick in terms of shooting a lovely magic hour sunset over fields of wheat, placing this film squarely in the category of just-good-looking-enough to get a pass without any actual artistry happening. The characters are all types of one or another, so as to be better over-explained to the audience by Gad's narration ("Ethan was sad." You don't say!). There are approximately zero surprises to be had in this film other than the implied puppy death I mentioned before, which the marketing team ensured by telling literally the entire story in the trailer.
But dag, man, I cried at least five times during this stupid movie. Gad, who has made a career out of walking the razor's edge between endearing and irritating, is restrained enough to feel appropriate, and takes a backseat during the middle third of the film. All of the actors are fulfilling their contracts, with the understanding that this is the dog show, so no one is attempting to upstage the canines we all came to see. Furthermore, the dog actors used in the film are incredibly talented (and overworked, if the news is to be believed). Other than the narration, Hallstrom does little to anthropomorphize the dogs, allowing them to behave as an extraordinarily talented animal would with almost no obvious CGI in use. In this sense, A Dog's Purpose is a very old-fashioned movie, one that could have conceivably been produced in any of the decades in which the film is set. This is in keeping with Hallstrom's style, as he is given to diving headfirst under a cozy blanket of nostalgia with many of his films.
Movies like this are more or less critic-proof: if you love dogs then you're pretty much the target audience for this film, and a lot of people love dogs. The fact that A Dog's Purpose is completely shallow and shamelessly willing to pull your heartstrings are almost selling points in its favor, as the few legitimately great films about animals are inevitably stone-cold bummers (Au hasard Balthazar, Watership Down, Heart of a Dog). Then again, if witnessing the passing of Marley or Skip was too much for you, then seeing it happen half a dozen times in a single film may not be what you're looking for.