A DOG’S PURPOSE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Lasse Hallstrom

Stars: Dennis Quaid, Josh Gad, Peggy Lipton, Luke Kirby, John Ortiz, Bryce Gheisar, K J Apa, Britt Robertson, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Pooch Hall, Logan Miller.

 

What is a dog’s purpose? Is it to provide companionship, to help us overcome grief and loneliness, or is it to help us find fulfilment and purpose in our own lives? These questions will be answered in this heart-warming and slightly mawkish feel good family friendly film based on the 2010 bestseller by W Bruce Cameron, best known for his book 8 Simple Rules For Dating My Daughter. The film comes from the Amblin stable, so audiences know what to expect. Pack plenty of tissues.

The concept is fairly simple and straightforward. We follow the life of a dog as it dies and is reincarnated several times across a forty-year time span, and see how its presence changes the lives of its many different owners. The dog’s thoughts are voiced by an upbeat and optimistic Josh Gad (from the recent live action version of Beauty And The Beast, etc), whose amusing perception of situations brings some wonderful touches of humour to proceedings, even when the material veers into somewhat darker territory. Each vignette carries its own emotional heft.

In the film’s first, and longest and most engaging segment, we meet Bailey, a red retriever who is the pet of young Ethan (played as an eight-year old by Bryce Gheisar, from tv series Walk The Prank, etc). Ethan’s father (Luke Kirby) is a travelling salesman and a quite successful one until a chain of events see him lose his job and become an abusive alcoholic full of self-loathing. As a teenager, Ethan (now played by New Zealand actor K J Apa, from Riverdale, etc, making his feature film debut) is a local football hero who wins a scholarship to college. But events thwart his dream and drive a wedge between him and his girlfriend Hannah (Britt Robertson, from The Longest Ride, The Space Between Us, etc), and he becomes bitter and frustrated with his failure. Bailey also dies of a broken heart. The Ethan/Bailey subplot is the core and heart of the film, and gives the narrative its central purpose in firmly establishing that strong, undying bond that develops between a dog and its owner.

Bailey is then reincarnated as a German shepherd named Ellie, who works as a sniffer dog for the Chicago police department. Her partner is Carlos (John Ortiz), who is lonely. But eventually Ellie manages to break down his emotional barriers and the pair become friends and a good working team. Then Bailey is reincarnated as a corgi named Tino, who is the pet of a pretty but lonely African American college student named Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, from tv series Love, etc). Maya is studious but also lonely, until Tino helps her find companionship and love with Al (Pooch Hall, from tv series Ray Donovan, etc).

And finally Bailey is reincarnated as a hairy mangy mutt known as Waffles, who is the neglected pet of a dysfunctional white trash couple. Unlike Bailey’s other owners we never really get to know this couple. Bailey is eventually abandoned on the streets and finds his way to a farmhouse where he is reluctantly adopted by the farmer (Dennis Quaid), who names him Buddy.

The director is Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallstrom, who first came to prominence with the 1985 coming of age tale My Life As A Dog about a lonely kid who imagines himself as a dog. Hallstrom has established a reputation for moving narratives and character driven dramas (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat, etc). He handles the material here with a sympathetic touch, but there is also a hint of obvious manipulation in shaping the story. The ending is a tad manipulative but it will also bring a lump to the throat of many in the audience. The film has been nicely shot by cinematographer Terry Stacey (Safe Haven, 50/50, etc).

Hallstrom draws some nice performances from his human cast. Gad brings plenty of charm, wit, innocence and sincerity to his voice over work as the various cute canines. In a relatively small role, Quaid brings some gravitas and a reliably earnest quality to the final vignette, which will certainly tug at the heartstrings. But it is the antics and the cuteness factor of the canine stars that will work its magic on audiences.

A Dog’s Purpose is a little cliched and manipulative at times, but it is also engaging and touching entertainment despite its flaws. Anyone who loves dogs or tales about dogs and their journey – from the classic Lassie Come Home through to Marley & Me and our own Red Dog – will thoroughly enjoy A Dog’s Purpose.

★★★

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