MOVIE BUFF-ET: ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ proves sentimental yet controversial

Amblin Entertainment

I’d be lying if I wrote I didn’t enjoy A Dog’s Purpose, a film directed by Lasse Hallström based on the 2010 novel by W. Bruce Cameron, but I’d also be fibbing if I didn’t admit I feel guilty about it.

The week the movie opened, TMZ ran a video filmed during the production of the movie that showed a fearful German shepherd being forced to do a stunt in churning water. Producers of the film, including star Dennis Quaid, claimed the video clip had been edited in a misleading manner. PETA called for a boycott of the movie on the grounds of inhumane and unethical treatment of animals.

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Part of my guilt stems from that, but the rest comes from the fact that I’m a sucker for sentimental stories that harken back to the “good ol’ days” even if those days are more nostalgia than reality.

Being weaned on Lassie and Benji movies as well as Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows, I have a tender spot for dog movies of all breeds. I definitely won’t claim objectivity with this movie.

Another failure I have as a critical consumer of films and stories of all sorts is that plot holes and even gaps in logic don’t overly bother me. Not to say I don’t notice, but if I can connect with the story in some way, I’m forgiving.

In other words, I can watch Hallmark and Lifetime movies and enjoy them for what they are, even if I can see what’s coming from a mile away. With entertainment, I also have a greater regard for emotion than logic.

With that in mind, A Dog’s Purpose plays much like a Hallmark movie with a huge production budget and talent across the board that’s usually out of the network’s reach. That should give you an idea whether you’d like the movie that’s clearly targeted at families.

The conceit of the film is that dogs are souls that are reincarnated into various canine forms, and we follow this dog, whose internal monologue is delightfully voiced by Josh Gad, through five lifetimes as he contemplates his purpose.

With life comes death, and the dog does die four times in the movie that spans 40 to 50 years. Only one death is violent, but all are sad. Gad’s narration softens each, but parents may have to deal with questions from their children. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but no matter how much of a part of life death is, it’s always an unsettling subject.

With each life, though, the dog begins to understand a bit more about his purpose, and for the viewer each of the dog’s lives could stand for phase of a human’s life: childhood, adolescence, entering the work force, finding love and starting a family and finally dealing with the loss and joy that comes with growing older.

The bulk of the movie is spent during the dog’s second life when an 8-year-old boy named Ethan finds the golden retriever pup, whom he names Bailey, suffering in a hot car. Ethan’s mom save Bailey and helps the boy talk his father into letting him keep the pup. Ethan and Bailey become best friends, and the movie traces their relationship until Bailey dies when Ethan is in college.

Bruce Gheisar plays Ethan at eight, and K.J. Apa, who is starring as comic book character Archie Andrews in the new TV show Riverdale, plays Ethan as a teen. Both are solid in the role. Bailey unorthodoxly helps introduce Ethan to the love of his life Hannah (Britt Robertson) at a carnival. Robertson, who also stars in The Space Between Us a promising romance that opens this weekend, adds warmth and spunk to the film in the supporting role.

In the third life, Bailey serves as a German shepherd police dog, and as a Corgi in a less eventful but more comfortable fourth life as the pet of a graduate student. With Bailey’s fifth life, the movie comes full circle in a way that I won’t reveal in this review. However, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve probably already figured it out.

While all of the actors in the film are on mark, Gad’s inquisitive and joyful narration truly binds the story together, and whichever of the five credited screenwriters was most responsible for Gad’s lines earned their money.

The film isn’t complex. Many will find it too trite and sentimental to be enjoyable. Others will avoid it because of the controversy, which is completely understandable and noble. Some, though, will find the movie endearing, and those are the folks the film was made for.

(PG) 1 hr. 40 min.
Grade: B

Classic Corner

Lassie is without a doubt the best-known canine movie star, but in the 1970s and early 1980s, Benji gave the ol’ Collie a run for his money as Hollywood’s top dog.

The mixed-breed pooch took America by storm in 1974 when the independently produced and distributed Benji became the third-highest grossing movie of the year. Every studio in Hollywood turned down the film, so writer-director-producer Joe Camp started his own production company and made them all sorry.

Made on a shoestring $500,000 budget, the film, in which Benji foils a kidnapping plot, grossed $45 million at the box office and was nominated for a Best Song Oscar for the tune “I Feel Love,” recorded by country music star Charlie Rich, whose career was at its apex in the mid-1970s.

The original Benji was actually played by a shelter dog named Higgins. Higgins’ daughter, BenJean, took over the role in the late 1970s.

All of the Benji films have their charms, but 1977’s For the Love of Benji and 1987’s Benji the Hunted are the two of the five films I’d suggest if parents want to introduce their kids to the adorable dog who always seemed to know a little bit more than his human pals.