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"A DOG'S PURPOSE"
(2017) (Bryce Gheisar, Dennis Quaid) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A canine ends up being reincarnated as different dogs over a span of fifty-some years with different owners.
PLOT:
It's the 1960s and 8-year-old Ethan (BRYCE GHEISAR) lives with his mom, Elizabeth (JULIET RYLANCE) and dad, Jim (LUKE KIRBY) in a Midwestern town. The newest addition to the family is a golden retriever puppy that Ethan and his mom rescued from certain death in a hot, locked truck. Named Bailey, the puppy grows up into an adult dog (voiced -- in thought mode only -- by JOSH GAD) that's always causing unintentional mishaps, all of which put additional strain on the parents' marriage, what with Jim being an unhappy traveling salesman who turns to the bottle for relief.

Years later, Ethan (KJ APA) is the star quarterback for his high school football team, with Bailey observing curious, sweaty behavior between the teen and his fellow classmate girlfriend, Hannah (BRITT ROBERTSON). But Jim's alcoholism eventually results in a marital split and an unexpected injury derails Ethan's college scholarship. To make matters worse, Bailey has now grown old and eventually has to be put down.

But he's reincarnated as Ellie (still voiced by JOSH GAD), a female German Shepherd enlisted in the K-9 division of the Chicago Police Department. Her partner, Carlos (JOHN ORTIZ), is good at his job, but is unhappy and lonely at home. After a tragic incident while on the job, the dog is reincarnated as Tino (voiced by JOSH GAD), a Corgi who brightens the life of college student Mia (KIRBY HOWELL-BAPTISTE) who eventually lets classmate Al (POOCH HALL) into her life. Tino has a good life, but likewise eventually has to be put down.

The dog then comes back as Buddy (voiced by JOSH GAD), a Shepherd/St. Bernard mix who spends his life chained to an outside fence in some poor neighborhood before being dumped. Now free and out in the country, Buddy ends up back in the life of now middle-aged Ethan (DENNIS QUAID) and inadvertently reunites him with Hannah (PEGGY LIPTON), all while trying to prove to Ethan that he's still Bailey after all of these years.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
As a general rule of thumb, I try not to let an actor, actress or filmmaker's personal beliefs, statements or actions influence my opinion of a film they've appeared in or helmed. If they've made a political tweet on Twitter that I don't agree with, I can look past that and see their movie for what it is.

There are exceptions to that rule, however, especially if said behavior is illegal and/or harms others and has occurred recently (as compared to decades ago, although that could still be bad) . And if it counters all or just some aspect of the movie, that makes it all the more difficult to ignore.

Which brings us to "A Dog's Purpose," an often emotionally moving but also disjointed, manipulative and sometimes far too dark drama about the special bond and connection between humans and their dogs. But recent news stories have revealed that in addition to canines, there's an elephant in the room that needs to be discussed.

And that's leaked, behind the scenes footage of one of the stunt dogs, Hercules, being forced into a water stunt he obviously doesn't want to do, followed by a shot of the dog actually sinking below the surface and everyone on the set freaking out.

I don't know who shot the footage, who leaked it or how edited it might have been. And the filmmaker (Lasse Hallström), author/screenwriter (W. Bruce Cameron) and producer (Gavin Polone) have issued statements about being horrified by what occurred, that they're investigating the incident, and that the dog is okay. But there's no denying what's obvious for all to see, and for a film that's about the love of dogs, it's a troubling revelation.

For better or worse, I saw the movie -- based on Cameron's novel of the same name -- before that footage was leaked. Had I seen it beforehand, it probably would have only exacerbated my reaction that for a movie about dogs, a lot of them die in this film.

Granted, in the course of any dog lover's life, that's going to happen (naturally via old age or by accident or illness), and the gist of the tale is that our main dog's soul (as voiced by Josh Gad who provides canine voice-over thought narration) is reincarnated from pooch to pooch, thus somewhat tempering any sort of doggie death permanency.

Viewers, however, and particularly parents of young kids, should note that the story goes through a fair number of dog demises, and some of those losses hit home hard at times, especially for anyone who's had a pet (dog, cat or otherwise).

And the emotional trauma isn't limited to just that. The first main segment -- following the quick capture of our central dog and heavily suggested euthanasia -- involves a boy (Bryce Gheisar) whose parents (Juliet Rylance and Luke Kirby) have a strained marriage that's only further weakened by the father's fatalistic views (specifically an unrewarding and demanding job, not to mention the Cuban Missile Crisis) and his deepening alcoholism.

That boy eventually grows up into a teen (KJ Apa) with a promising collegiate football life, but a tragedy ruins that and his relationship with his girlfriend (Britt Robertson), followed by the time to put down old Bailey (who was initially rescued from near heat death in a locked truck following the initial reincarnation). And the waterworks start, but then the story quickly shifts to the dog being reborn as a K-9 officer (played by the aforementioned Hercules) whose owner (John Ortiz) is a depressed man. That doesn't get any better when they respond to a child kidnapping (what's with all of the grim material?) and things only go downhill from there.

All of which thankfully segues into a cheerful story about a lonely woman (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) who finds happiness through her pooch and then marriage and family life, only to have dogs' shorter than human life spans coming into play again with a quick double whammy in that regard.

That's followed by a brief bit where the reincarnated dog spends his entire life chained to a fence outside, only to be dumped, followed by being found by a former owner (Dennis Quaid) who eventually realizes what's happened.

Yes, just like real life, there are happy and sad parts, and while much of the description above makes it sound like Death is ever-present, there are enough funny and light bits to offset much of the tragedy and sadness that's present. Yet, for those aware of the real-life controversy surrounding Hercules and his mistreatment, that could only add to the sense that this is at times a fairly grim "love letter" film about dogs.

I certainly had that feeling, and while it's sometimes good to show kids a look at real life that isn't sugar-coated, this could be fairly intense or maybe even traumatic for younger viewers not ready for what's going to hit them.

All of that said, and in terms of storytelling overall, I thought that certain segments worked fairly well, although as an overall offering I didn't always find that all of them came together as well as intended. I'm not sure if some script tweaks could have tied things together better thematically (in supplementing Gad's narration throughput) or in providing an answer to the ultimate meaning behind the title.

While "A Dog's Purpose" might give dog owners some relief that their beloved pooches get to live on as other dogs in other's lives, the body count in the film was a bit too much for me. At least, thankfully there wasn't a real-life addition to that. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed January 11, 2017 / Posted January 27, 2017


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