Despite lacking a strong narrative or compelling characters, A Dog’s Purpose remains watchable enough thanks to its cutesy canines.
A Dog’s Purpose was born and fostered as a feel-good film. If the sight of animals, especially cutesy canines, brings a smile to your face, then A Dog’s Purpose will make you gush over the Golden Retriever, German Shepherd, Corgi and Saint Bernard that show up as reincarnations of a dog during the film.
The movie feels like a stretched-out commercial for dog adoption. We see the animal characters from their birth with their mother until a human usually adopts them, some willingly some reluctantly, and the story follows their lives afterwards. Kiddo Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) is more than eager to keep the Golden Retriever, the second reincarnate after the first has a short-lived life in a pound. He names it Bailey (or ‘Bailey, Bailey, Bailey, Bailey, Bailey!’ as the dog recognizes it) after his mother Elizabeth (Juliet Rylance) and he find it locked (and losing consciousness) in a pick-up truck one summer afternoon in 1950s. Dad Jim (Luke Kirby) needs an evening’s convincing to approve of the furry addition to the family. Bailey is voiced by a youthful-sounding Josh Gad, although the film could’ve scored higher if hadn’t used a voiceover for its dogs.
Bailey grows up mostly around Ethan, who teaches him a few cool tricks (which end up having an important purpose later in the film) but can’t train him to be a ‘good’ boy. Bailey loves to create a ruckus even as a grown-up dog whether by chasing the domestic cat at home or chickens in the fields during visits to Ethan’s grandparents’ home. Unfortunately, one of Bailey’s antics ruins dad Jim’s chances of getting a promotion, and Jim’s career spirals downwards thereon. He takes to drinking and grows increasingly aloof from his family. Ethan meanwhile grows up to become a star soccer player in college. He also gets into a relationship with Hannah (Britt Robertson), a girl he first sets his eyes on at a carnival. Bailey has a role as an unlikely matchmaker here as well, which is ultimately the film’s obvious purpose – to highlight every way in which a dog plays a part in a human’s life, most essentially by making you feel less lonesome in life (perhaps the film’s most weighty message).
Ethan almost makes it into Michigan State University on full scholarship but his plans are cut short when he breaks his leg while escaping his house, which is up in flames following a prank. He dispiritedly leaves for an agriculture school instead, and Bailey’s hours becomes less adventurous in the absence of Ethan at his new residence with the grandparents.
In its next life, Bailey is born as a German Shepherd bitch named Ellie. It is the 80s now and Bailey/Ellie’s new owner Carlos (John Ortiz) is a police officer working for the Chicago Police Department. Ellie, still retaining Gad’s voice, becomes a sniffer dog. The theme of loneliness is more prominent here as we learn that Carlos’ wife/lover has left him or is departed. Bailey’s next incarnate Tino, a Corgi, too has a friendless owner, Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a 20 or so college student. However, Maya ends up getting married soon (the dog has a part to play in this, of course) and Tino leads a fulfilling life with his doggie companion too!
Following Tino’s demise, the film concludes with Bailey’s reincarnation as a Saint Bernard ‘Buddy’. It predictably brings the story full circle by getting Ethan and Hannah back into the picture. The reunion of Bailey, now as Buddy the Saint Bernard, with elderly Ethan (Dennis Quaid) and Hannah (Peggy Lipton) is far-fetched and corny.
The whole film in fact is a twee corny, with a simple, almost rudimentary narrative simple, and skin-and-bones human characterizations. It is the charming performances by the ensemble of both dog and human actors that makes A Dog’s Purpose a passable, if not memorable, watch.