1/27/2017

Review: 'A Dog's Purpose,' Starring Josh Gad, Dennis Quaid, K.J. Apa, and Britt Robertson


The title of A Dog's Purpose is phrased as a statement, but the film tackles the subject like a question: What is the meaning of life, through the eyes of a dog? That's a cute idea -- and the film certainly piles on the cliches and sentimentality -- but the film gets mired too deeply in its own melodrama and its masculine point-of-view to ever deliver any emotions that feel remotely universal.

The film focuses on the consciousness of one dog, voiced by Josh Gad, who cycles through various bodies as he is reincarnated over and over again. "I'm back!" he says with surprise and glee every time, and it's the same kind of wonder that Gad brought to the snowman Olaf in Frozen, too. But not every life is perfect. In one existence, the dog is captured by animal control and put down. In another, he's neglected, ignored, and chained to a tree through all kinds of weather.

But the dog finds his perfect companion in the 1960s with the young boy Ethan (played by Bryce Gheisar), who adores the Red Retriever he rescues from a hot car. His alcoholic father isn't too pleased with the dog's exuberance, but after Ethan names the dog Bailey, cuddles with him while reading Captain America comics, and teaches him tricks, it's clear the two are going to be best friends for a long time.

And they are, with Bailey by Ethan's side as he grows into a star high school quarterback (played by K.J. Apa)with a full scholarship. Together with Ethan's devoted girlfriend Hannah (played by Britt Robertson), Bailey considers them a pack, and doesn't think anything could ever go wrong. But when an accident threatens to derail Ethan's plans for the future, he lashes out -- pushing away both Hannah and Bailey and setting off a series of events that pushes Bailey's consciousness into the bodies of other dogs.

Those subplots, in which the dog voiced by Gad is reincarnated into other species at other times in other lives, is what could be the most interesting part of A Dog's Purpose, but the stories stumble spectacularly. In one, where Bailey is reincarnated as a German Shepherd K9 named Ellie, he's shocked that he's a female dog, complaining about "missing parts." The awkwardness of having Gad voice a female dog is obvious. In another, he's the Corgi companion of a college student who rebuffs the friendship of other humans and instead only wants to eat and sit around with her dog all day. When she tells her dog that she wishes he were her boyfriend, it's supposed to be a touching moment, I guess? But it comes off as surprisingly pathetic and a disservice to a character who deserves more than just being a cliched lonely girl stereotype.

Unfortunately, A Dog's Purpose short-changes its female characters quite often. Hannah and Ethan's mother are only defined by their love for him; you have no sense of their interests, passions, or goals. The two subplots that focus on female owners are that awful college student one -- which ends in, of course, her getting married and having kids, because what else would women want? -- and another where a trashy woman gets the dog because he's cute but then abuses him for years and years.

In contrast, most of the male owners portrayed are stand-up guys who just can't catch a break. The adorable Ethan grows into a jaded, grumpy old man played by Dennis Quaid, who is portrayed as misunderstood when he really just seems like a jerk, and a lonely police officer who is so committed to his job that his wife left him. He was too good of a person, and she just didn't understand! Because this film has absolutely no interest in portraying fully thought out women.

And no, that's not just for the humans. It is undeniably strange when the dog's consciousness inhabits the body of a female dog but is still voiced by Gad; it's a weird choice that serves the reincarnation storyline, I guess, but still seems off. Similarly bizarre is how the dog voiced by Gad is the only consciousness we hear; even when the dog, in Corgi form, falls for a female dog named Roxy and talks often about how much he loves her and how devoted he is, we never hear her point of view or see her interacting with him affectionately. If the movie is about "a dog's purpose," why is it so damn disinterested in every other dog onscreen?

There's a lot of schmaltz here, and perhaps family viewers will go for it in the same way they did for last summer's The Secret Life of Pets -- oh look, Bailey eats bacon and doesn't understand human kissing and antagonizes the family's pet cat! But it's irritating how little A Dog's Purpose gives back to viewers despite asking for all of your tears and emotions, and it's frustrating how its ending reinforces all the problematic gender dynamics it displays up until then. Gad does a nice job voicing a cute dog. Aside from that, A Dog's Purpose doesn't have much to offer.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Guttenbergs