Friday 12 May 2017

A Dog's Purpose (2017) - Movie Review

Even though I have a dog at home myself, I’ve never really gotten the “point” of having pets. I see ordinary life for your standard human as complicated enough to get through without needing to simultaneously take care of a living thing that just barely counts in terms of intelligent life. I mean, people seem to take care better of their dogs than they do themselves; they certainly dress their canines better than themselves sometimes, I’ll tell you that for a fact. However, that’s not to say that I’m against it or anything like that; there’s a reason why cute pet videos still dominate the Internet to this day, and some of them are legitimately heart-warming by showing just how much animals mean to their owners. Such a shame that film never really seems able to translate that properly, with the box-office curse that is the talking animal movie still very much in effect.
So, as I continue dreading the point where I end up watching last year’s chatty-cat failure Nine Lives (or Mr. Fuzzypants as it was retitled over here, because fuck knows that I’m not embarrassed enough to watch the bloody thing), let’s take a look at this recent shaggy offering.

The plot: Bailey (Josh Gad) is a dog with the unusual ability to reincarnate as another dog each time he dies. As he goes through his numerous lives, and the numerous owners that come with them, Bailey ponders the meaning of his own existence and what it means to truly “live”. Prepare your sick bags now because it’s only going to get worse from here.

Writing non-human characters as a means to give an outsider’s perspective on humanity is a classic SF staple. Writing dogs in fiction to act and even think like actual dogs, rather than shaggier versions of people, has been quickly gaining ground, particularly in animated family films since Pixar’s Up stole the show with its own talking dogs. I bring all this up because this film definitely knows what it’s doing when it comes to portraying realistic dogs. That sounds fairly obvious, given how we’re not dealing with pointless CGI, but Bailey et al. are very convincing as the inner thoughts of your beloved doggie. The inability to understand the finer workings of life, yet showing a better understanding of human emotion than even some humans can manage, and being easily fixated on food and other dogs; this is the kind of film that might leave audiences wondering what their own pets are thinking at home.
It probably helps that this film gives a nice and broad perspective when it comes to dog owners, going from the sympathetic to the just plain pathetic (a woman crying in the bath over a man while eating ice cream; progressive(!)) to the highly questionable. If this was designed and intended to be a feature-length commercial for a local dog pound, shot with all the subtlety of a PETA production, I’d say it at least does its expected job well enough. Make sense, considering this has the emotional sincerity and general production values of a commercial reel.

Ever decided to make toast, but then discovered that there’s literally nothing in the house to put on it so you just eat it plain? That’s this movie in a nutshell because this might be one of the single blandest films I’ve had to cover on this blog. It tries to push some kind of spiritual philosophy with its main conceit involving reincarnation and the occasional questioning about life and its purpose (if it even has one), but it’s still wrapped around a series of phenomenally dull vignettes. The one we spend most of our time with involves Ethan at various stages of his life, and the way that it depicts romance and some incredibly melodramatic set pieces (there’s a house fire scene that feels like something that escaped an early draft of Endless Love… either of them) makes this feel like a once-removed Nicholas Sparks story. The fact that director Lasse Hallström actually has a Nicholas Sparks adaptation under his belt with Dear John doesn’t help.
It kind of takes the whole ‘dog as observer’ thing to its most passive extreme, to the point where it feels like the dog’s “dialogue” in most cases feels like a literal afterthought. And yet, the Ethan scenes are probably the best parts of the film; at least the argument could be made that things are happening in them. Once we get to his life as a police dog (in a scene that takes a jarringly darker turn than the rest of the film) and then him being owned by a pining college student, and then just a couple of deadbeats, it’s less ‘plot’ and more trying in vain to find one. It’s as if the dog literally just wandered onto the sets of other films and they decided to compile the footage.

Mild spoiler time now: The dog’s life as Bailey is actually his second life that we see on screen. The first one barely gets to do much of anything before it is caught by a dog pound… and then we see him brought back as Bailey. This ends up setting the tone for the film in a pretty objectionable way because, for the entire length of the film, there’s a rather unsettling notion that we are watching dogs die just so that the audience can have a good cry about it. This only solidifies once we get to the police dog sequence, which ends with the dog openly bleeding out while the camera makes sure that we can see that that is what’s happening. Knowing the sort of storytelling techniques that go into animal-centric stories, I had an initial feeling that was going to be somewhat emotionally manipulative. Sure, pretty much every single film is by design, given how they are meant to make us feel things for people who (most of the time) don’t actually exist. 
However, when it gets to the point where you have scenes that are almost screaming for the audience to bawl their eyes out, from the dog tragedy to the scenes involving an alcoholic and physically abusive father and a gun-toting kidnapper, it feels like you’re being strong-armed into feels. This ultimately is what most RSPCA/PETA/Animal advocacy organisation of the day propaganda tends to strive for, and this ends up falling flat for the same reason: It comes across like we’re being talked down to, as if we’re all animal abusers and generally shitty people that need to be changed. Admittedly, this doesn’t go as far down that road as the desperate attention-seeking antics of PETA, but it still rings of that familiar feeling of being pandered to to make some sort of point.

All in all, you could literally get the same effect from watching a few cute animal videos on YouTube, only you’d save the money of your ticket and you’d probably have enough to get more food and toys for your own pets. And let’s be honest, it’s mostly pet owners who will end up seeing this thing; if not, then don’t be surprised if your kid suddenly decides that they want a puppy if you take them to see this. The acting is perfectly fine but the stories involved and the overall tone feels way too manipulative and way too corny to buy into. It doesn’t help that this film’s approach when it comes to making the audience feel something shows a rather distasteful answer to what is a dog’s “purpose”: They must suffer so that we can feel sad. It’s kind of sickening, really.


  1. i saw the movie so goooooooooooood!!!

    1. Good for you, I guess. I'm certainly not going to begrudge anyone else enjoying a film, even if I didn't.