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Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017 12:04 am

Simplistic Purpose a bit listless

Dennis Quaid as Ethan in A Dog’s Purpose.


Anyone who’s ever had a dog has asked the question, “I wonder what they’re thinking?” Lasse Hallstrom’s A Dog’s Purpose does its level best to answer this query, and the results are less than satisfactory. Seems as though they think that kissing is an act in which humans look for food in each other’s mouths and that there’s nothing better than rolling around in donkey poop. Ah, the life of a dog.

Based on the novel by W. Bruce Cameron, the dog in question is existential in nature, constantly wondering, “Why am I here? What is my purpose?” It’s no surprise he can’t come to any definitive answer as he’s reincarnated again and again, returning as a different breed each time, sometimes changing sex along the way. We first see the canine as a golden retriever named Bailey (Josh Gad provides the voice for each dog incarnation) who’s the constant companion of Ethan (Bryce Gheisar), an 8-year-old who has a loving mother and a depressed father, a situation that ultimately leads to the family’s demise years later after the boy has transformed into a hunky football star (K.J. Apa). Bailey leads a long healthy life, but knows he’s leaving his master in dire straits after a tragedy strikes.

This doggy soul comes back as a German Shepherd that’s trained as a police dog, then a corgi that likes pizza and helps bring her owner out of her shell, and finally a Saint Bernard-like, lumbering mutt who grows up in poverty, is abandoned, and then finds his way back to Ethan, who has grown up into a mopey version of Dennis Quaid. As hunky as he is, he somehow has grown old without ever marrying, still despondent over his lost high school love. No fair guessing how this all turns out.

If Hallstrom’s intent was to make a movie that would be described as “pleasant,” he succeeds handsomely. Unfortunately, other adjectives such as “bland,” “saccharine” and “dull” are appropriate as well. Like an older pooch that just sits around the house all day, this movie just lays there at times, an inert collection of good intentions and sentimental homilies that require little in the way of intellectual or emotional commitment. The plot is so simplistic that no thought is required while the filmmakers go out of their way to tell you how to feel.
Perhaps the greatest mystery where this movie is concerned is why it took four screenwriters to cobble together this pastiche of pabulum. This is far from a complex narrative, and having too many irons in the writing fire leads to a story that has little in the way of momentum and nothing in the way of surprises. While the cast, which also includes Britt Robertson and Peggy Lipton as the teenage and older version of Ethan’s love, Hannah, is fully invested and gives fine naturalistic performances, the story is just too bland for them to add any sort of spark to this dog’s tale.

The conclusion the film’s dog collective comes to is that its purpose is to have fun, find someone to save and save them, lick someone you love and be here now, all of which are in keeping with the movie’s simplistic approach. While it may seem cruel – something akin to kicking a puppy – to criticize such a well-intentioned piece of work, and I have no doubt dog owners around the world will likely embrace it, in the end A Dog’s Purpose proves to be – forgive me – a real howler.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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