What a comforting thought that dogs get reincarnated.
According to “A Dog’s Purpose,” an effectively earnest tearjerker, the pet reverts back to a puppy upon its demise. It then shows up as a different breed and starts all over again with memories of past lives intact.
This clearly contradicts the message of “All Dogs Go to Heaven.”
While consoling in theory, the concept proves traumatic, considering this is a PG film aimed at family audiences.
Or as my young daughter exclaimed after the screening while fighting back tears, “It’s like ‘Old Yeller’ times five!”
“What is the meaning of life?” asks a dog (guilelessly voiced in each incarnation by Josh Gad). “Was having fun the point? The whole point?”
He’ll have to trot through a handful of lives to find the answer. Initially, he’s Bailey, the devoted golden retriever of Ethan (Bryce Gheisar), a small-town kid in 1961 Michigan. From Bailey’s perspective, we watch Ethan navigating the divide between his supportive mom (Juliet Rylance) and troubled dad (Luke Kirby).
As a high-schooler, Ethan (now played by K.J. Apa) recruits Bailey to help woo a cute neighbor (Britt Robertson) and hone his scholarship-level football skills. But Bailey still wrestles with understanding how these human relationships play out as his own time grows short.
With every passing decade, Bailey becomes another pooch getting to know a new owner. Each experience offers its highs, lows, dangers and heartbreaks. But the journey leads full circle when he bumps into the grown-up Ethan (Dennis Quaid), and a clear objective arises.
Quaid has made the talk show rounds this week defending “A Dog’s Purpose” against allegations that a canine actor was put in peril during filming. The star called leaked production footage “edited and manipulated” and a “scam,” insisting all the pups were treated well.
Assuming that’s the case, the movie comes across as steadfastly pro-dog. Those who leave their animals in hot cars or chained up to trees for hours are instantly vilified. But loyal owners are also shown to have a complicated relationship with their pets. These include a Chicago K9 officer, whose bond with his German shepherd is kept at a professional distance, and a lonely college student (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), who treats her corgi to the same overindulgences as herself.
Swedish director Lasse Hallström (who once earned an Oscar nomination for his breakthrough “My Life as a Dog” — which was, ironically, not about a dog) doesn’t shy away from the manipulative nature of this material. This is a movie genetically bred to reap tears.
Hallström and screenwriter Cathryn Michon’s adaptation may not contain the subtext of the best-selling novel by W. Bruce Cameron, yet it does capture the sentiment. “A Dog’s Purpose” encourages both pets and humans to “live in the moment.” That’s the same strategy employed by this emotions-tugging film.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘A Dog’s Purpose’
Rated PG. Time: 2:01.