On the best of days, it is hard for most of us to separate pure unbridled emotion from cold hard logic and fact. While I won’t rehash the controversy around A Dog’s Purpose which opens in theatres tomorrow since it has been explained pretty well by a variety of other outlets and because no matter your emotion reaction to that leaked video and the mistreatment of a animal actor, the end result of the film has to be the business at hand and ultimately while this film wildly swings from bleak world views to maudlin melodrama to schmaltzy crap, there’s something about A Dog’s Purpose which has an unmistakable charm that just wants to make you hug your dog, or any dog for that matter.
A Dog’s Purpose shares the soulful and surprising story of a devoted dog (voiced by Josh Gad) who finds the meaning of his own existence through the lives of the humans he teaches to laugh and love as his spirit continues to get reincarnated and learns about life from a variety of different owners. Based on the beloved bestselling novel of the same name this family film is told from the dog’s perspective and also stars the likes of Britt Robertson, John Ortiz, Juliet Rylance, Luke Kirby and Dennis Quaid.
I’ll be the first to admit that you’ll be wading through an amount of cornball schmaltz that would make you envy poop scooping for a Great Dane since the emotions swing wildly throughout the film making it feel over crammed with material and tonally bi-polar at the best of times. However when it gets down to the raw emotion of companionship there is some genuine emotion in this film that manages to come across on the screen and that’s what audiences will remember.
Director Lasse Hallstrom is a solid hand and crafts a beautiful looking film but the narrative is far too jumpy, especially in the second half of the film. With 5 writers including the books original author W Bruce Cameron working on the screenplay, there are simply far too many cooks in the kitchen as it goes through a lot of bloated exposition to get us to the conclusion that it wants us to. Everybody involved is certainly trying their hardest but it too often turns far too hard on genuine heartbreaking emotion to cornball comedy. It does on occasion work but you feel like you are being so obviously manipulated that it’s like you’ve got two people pushing and pulling you in different direction while you are watching the film. If the script had focused on keeping things a little simpler and not hitting us over the head with the outdated notion that if you are alone the world is a horribly miserable place then you might have been able to enjoy the emotional ride of this canine companion.
Quite simply, channeling his performance as Olaf in Frozen, Josh Gad basically saves the movie. His voice is a cuddly warm blanket that you want to snuggle up and watch TV with. He makes the comedy work with stunning aplomb and gets us as an audience laughing our heads off during moments where we are sad at the exact same time. The writing for his character is certainly fine, but Gad matches the emotional tone of it all so damn well that it is hard not to get sucked up into everything that this dog is thinking about throughout all of his lifetimes. Sadly though outside of KJ Apa and Britt Robertson who carry the early parts of the film with their young romance and Dennis Quaid as the lonely farmer looking to connect with anything get to stand out as the likes of Peggy Lipton, John Ortiz (who is wasted and miscast in a handful of stellar sequences) Gabrielle Rose, Luke Kirby, Juliet Rylance, Kirby Howell-Baptiste just end up going through the motions in a fairly uninspired manner.
Ultimately, it’s not a film for everyone and it will play much differently depending on if you’ve ever had a pet, but in spite of all the flaws here in A Dog’s Purpose (and please make no mistake, there are LOTS of them) there’s still something here that pulls on the heartstrings and puts a tear in your eye. It serves as a reminder that relationships be they between people or between humans & animals are always messy as hell and if you over think them, you’ll just screw them up. Live in the moment of A Dog’s Purpose and you’ll be fine…as long as you leave your logic and common sense at the door.