Director: Lasse Hallström
Writers: W. Bruce Cameron (screenplay), Cathryn Michon (screenplay)
Stars: Josh Gad, Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton
It’s not often that I’m genuinely surprised in a good way with the content served up in a film. I’ll admit to having regularly used IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes ratings as a barometer for viewing films before, and I’m so glad I ignored the fairly average rating ‘A Dogs Purpose’ currently has on both. I was blissfully unaware of the pathetic PETA and TMZ call for boycotts before watching the film. Both wrongfully accusing the director Lasse Hallström and the studio of perpetrating animal abuse during a certain pool scene, effectively using heavily edited footage to fit their agenda.
There was no animal abuse, several people were supporting the dog during the scene and it was an animal well versed in water activities. So now that I’ve got that out the way, I’ll carry on reviewing the most important aspect of the whole thing. I.e. The film itself and the story within.
In its most basic form, the film is about a dog, or more accurately its consciousness, which manifests itself in multiple different lifespans throughout the film. It starts with the birth of cute, little puppies, something that’s repeated half a dozen times over the course of the film, and also with the introduction of Josh Gad’s perfectly suited vocal talents. The first pup we see has a short existence on earth and Gad can be heard pondering the meaning of life after its untimely death. Another litter of pups later and the next dog, going by the name of Baillie, thankfully lasts a fair bit longer, taking the large majority of the screen time and building a beautiful relationship with its young owner Eathan (Bryce Gheisar & K.J. Apa).
Disclaimer alert: I own a six month, fox red Labrador and that retriever is literally a longer haired version of him, so I was rather pleased that Baillie was essentially the main dog of the film. The others were lovely too, but Retrievers are the best in my mind.
During Baillie’s lifespan, which covers a fair ol’ chunk of time, spanning from Eathan’s childhood all the way to his college years, Hallström really effectively builds a strong emotional attachment to both Baillie and Eathan, selling the dual story of both what the dogs purpose in life is and also the underlying theme of love/heartbreak and the role a dog or pet can play in resolving or soothing that. And so, when the faithful, old retriever faces his mortality later in life, it’s quite a sad and poignant moment, such is the effectiveness of the bond created with the two characters in a relatively short time. Of course, the nature of the story means that Baillie goes through the whole reincarnation thing again, nicely lifting the tone with the mere sight of more cuddly puppies, and also allowing Hallström to continue the thematics of love with new owners just as the film was threatening to lag a little.
“I had a purpose. I was needed again, and again, and again. With each new life I was learning a new lesson”. And indeed he was. From living the life of a German Shepherd police dog (or should that be bitch?); under the faithful, disciplined, but lonely eye of his widowed handler; to the completely opposite, glutinous lifestyle during his pampered existence as Dino (an overweight Corgi), this time having a comfort eating, equally lonely, bubbly young woman for an owner. The humour was ramped up during this incarnation as the little Corgi (or Gad even) read it’s owners mind time and again. “You know what I’m thinking?” she’d ask and “Ice cream” the dog would reply. Simple humour, I know, but it worked oh so well.
This film is like a romantic comedy incognito in many ways. Baillie earning Ethan a date with Hannah; Dino’s urge to get up close to a dog that took his fancy, bringing love and marriage to his singleton owner (I can’t remember her name?) and even in his existence as the police dog, he/she acts like a sort of stand-in partner for his/her handler. So it was hardly surprising that he should return to his original owner by sheer fate to finish what he started, finding his way back to Ethan’s farm after being abandoned by the neglectful, idiotic owners he had the misfortune of having in his fifth incarnation as a dog. Sure, the ending is a little convenient and more than a little soppy, but I liked it and it struck a chord inside when the older Ethan (Dennis Quaid) realised it could be his old friend back by his side.
As I mentioned at the beginning, it’s not often the content of a film surprises me and this one certainly did. I thought the story was heartwarming, well written and very well directed by Hallström. It can’t be easy having a multitude of dogs as your main star in the film, but I know he had some experience of this before with Hachi: A Dogs Tale and it showed as each canine exuded personality and lit up the screen. This of course was helped by the wonderful voice work of Josh Gad, who brought humour and real emotion to the film. Credit also to the three actors who portrayed Ethan from a boy to a middle-aged adult, they felt like the same person and did an excellent job. Quaid in particular is a favourite of mine.
I would absolutely recommend giving this film a watch if you love dogs or even have a soft spot for a good heartwarming story. Far from being an advert for animal abuse as PETA would have you believe, it’s actually a fantastic advert for rescue dogs and the power of good a faithful canine can do in the world. I highly enjoyed it.