It’s important to address the controversy that surrounds A Dog’s Purpose before moving forward. A video posted by TMZ on the 18th of January depicts two instances of a German Shepard under duress during production. The studio denies the allegations, as does Gavin Polone, one of the producers on the film. Using the internal review of the matter as cover, Amblin Entertainment and distributor Universal Pictures jointly decided to cancel the world premiere and press junket ahead of the national release. While filmmaking seeks to mimic the dangers of real life, the safety of cast and crew is paramount to storytelling. But true or not, the knowledge that one of the animals may have been in harm’s way during production casts a pallor over several important scenes, if not the entire film. It’s a shame as, on the whole, A Dog’s Purpose exemplifies the significance of humanity’s relationship with our furry friends.
That said, we can move on to the review proper.
Dogs have a way of impacting everyone they touch in a way we don’t truly understand. Their companionship makes joys sweeter and pains duller. They force us to move and engage with the world, and mostly, they provide unconditional love. Adapted from the W. Bruce Cameron novel of the same name, A Dog’s Purpose approaches the human-canine relationship strictly from the canine perspective. It’s not the first time that a film personifies a dog – Milo & Otis and The Incredible Journey, to start – yet, the unique way it approaches the journey of The Dog is surprisingly evocative and sincere.
Directed by Lance Hallström (The Cider House Rules/Chocolat/Dear John), A Dog’s Purpose follows the journey of one dog, narrated by Josh Gad (Frozen), as it seeks to understand the meaning of its existence through five lifetimes and several families.
Surprisingly, A Dog’s Purpose works on two-levels. As a PG-rated family film, audiences of all ages will delight in the adventures of The Dog as it goes from life to life playing, learning, and loving. Meanwhile, under the surface, A Dog’s Purpose tackles heavy topics of life, love, death, abuse, grief, and euthanasia. Though most of this will be lost on younger audiences, the fact that A Dog’s Purpose doesn’t ignore significant transformative moments in both human and canine life provides a springboard to discuss these topics among families.
So how does Hallström set the stage for these moments? Like the original novel, A Dog’s Purpose takes place over several decades, with each reincarnation heralded by blue and yellow lights, as well as a song from each new time period. Though Hallström is the sole director, each new time period feels unique and is presented like a vignette within a larger story. From a pacing standpoint, utilizing a vignette-style provides each section with a sense of newness without actually starting over. This serves to make the fairly large human cast easier to manage, while also cleverly moving the narrative forward. While the people, places, and even the Dog’s form may change, Gad’s Dog memories stay the same, servicing as the true connector for all the stories.
Having won numerous awards for his voice-acting, it’s no wonder that Josh Gad is delightful as the voice of The Dog. Gad possesses immense talent at delivering lines that suggest great warmth one moment and deep sadness the next. Truly, if not for his ability to convince audiences of The Dog’s lovable innocence throughout the journey, A Dog’s Purpose would be absolutely sunk. The humans that support Gad are equally talented, though less significant to the overall success of the film. For example, while Dennis Quaid (Inner Space/The Day After Tomorrow) receives top billing and his performance is commendable for the short time his character of adult Ethan is involved, the significance relies heavily on both K.J. Apa’s teen Ethan performance and the even earlier performance of Bryce Gheisar as child Ethan. Each performance is solid, never devolving into caricature or sentimentality, but Gad’s Dog pulls them altogether creating the weight that each performance requires to make A Dog’s Purpose the tear-worthy film it is.
At first glance, A Dog’s Purpose seems like every animal-focused film released in the last century: a heart-warming tale that highlights the intense connection between pets and their owners. Impressively, by making The Dog the focal point, A Dog’s Purpose achieves far more than the typical faire as it enables the filmmakers to ponder the dog’s perspective on the wonders and mysteries of humanity. If one thing is to be taken from the film, our lives are improved by sharing it with another life, especially a canine one.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.