A Dog's Purpose movie full length review - Maudlin and Sappy but You Get What You Pay For
A Dog's Purpose comes to it's audience with what it thinks is a fun and novel high-concept - follow the history of an ever-living consciousness as it moves from one vessel to another; learning lessons along the way.
The reincarnated "soul" in this movie in this case, always comes back as a dog. A dog whose inner monologue (Gad) seems a lot more worried about its purpose than most."What is the meaning of life? What is my purpose? And how does bacon fit in?" he says in a sappy attempt to win us over. Sad truth is it works.
The thing is if you're not automatically rubbed the wrong way by the film's incessantly mawkish tone, you're probably going to end up liking A Dog's Purpose. It gushes like the gooey center of a deep-fried Oreo and often feels twice as sweet. It floats on pecan-pie dreams, propelled by Josh Gad's buttery voice work and topped with enough cheese to kill an elephant. A lot of it may be due to humanity's deep attachment to their pets but when the film's pack of trained animals do their thing, hearts just seem to melt.
Where the film fails and fails miserably is in its human moments. The soul, as it were, glides through the lives of five dogs in total, finding its name and its formative spirit in a Labrador Retriever named Baily. His owner Ethan (Gheisar) is a little boy whose innocent adolescent hijinks would scream Norman Rockwell if not for his alcoholic father (Kirby). The interactions between the teenage Ethan (Apa), his mother (Rylance), his father, his girlfriend (Robertson) etc. are downright embryonic. Instead of letting the slowly festering wounds of the father be portrayed as human, the film sees him as nothing more than a cancer that must be cut. "After that night, Ethan became the head of the pack," says Baily; just after the film forces an emotional coda.
It's a problem of perspective. A Dog's Purpose constrains itself to the point of view of the dog as the dog. As far as Buddy knows, he's never been anything else which sets him apart from say Fluke (1995) or Oh Heavenly Dog (1980). Therefore every nuance of social and emotional development on the part of the humans is seen without any context. Necking in the car becomes a search for food, driving away becomes a game of fetch and going up a woman's skirt becomes a search for biscuits. It's a fun exercise for a short story maybe, but it hardly works as basis of a two hour movie.
The problem becomes worse over the course of the movie and throughout Baily's other lives. The owners of Ellie and Milo (the third and fourth reincarnations) are portrayed as sad-sacks drifting in and out of life. When Maya (Howell-Baptiste) actually finds some form of happiness, (i.e. a man) the movie trips itself over streams of maudlin and montage. While the movie does get brownie points for displaying precious little of the human condition visually, the deeper wells of all possible emotion are left untapped leaving only a trickle of dog slobber.
Baily, then Ellie, then Milo, the Buddy comes to understand the meaning of family, the notion of loyalty and the attachment that humans feel towards their dogs. While doing so he ponders if this is indeed the real deal; the real purpose to his existence. Ironically it takes him five lifetimes to learn what humans do in one and cats seem to know innately; Be there for the ones you love. It's ironic because most the time, he's literally chained to them.