The purpose of a dog, according to “A Dog’s Purpose,” is to be a tool for manipulating emotional responses through repeated cloying death scenes. What starts out as a celebration of canines ends up being one of the saddest and most contrived movies in decades.
Going with the idea that dogs are repeatedly re-incarnated, the action begins with Buddy (who speaks via a voice over supplied by Josh Gad). His latest life has him becoming the companion to Ethan (played in three different ages by Bryce Gheisar, K.J. Apa and Dennis Quaid).
Buddy is by Ethan’s side through the unwatchable storyline of dealing with an alcoholic father, a light romance with Hannah (Britt Robertson) and the heartbreak of a thwarted sports career. These elements are basic ingredients for half the movies that show up on the Hallmark Channel.
Then Buddy dies.
This leads to a string of other lives for the pooch, eventually winding around to a very familiar place. The journey is filled with bland characters whose purpose is to shed tears when their dog dies. Because there are so many different lives, the connections between the humans an their pets never fully form.
Even if the audience buys into the re-incarnation idea, the writers can’t even keep that structure straight. If the canine has lived an endless string of lives, why does his connection to Ethan remain the only one he recalls? That can’t be the only great connection made in all the dog lives.
Writing for the humans is equally uninspired. You know there’s a disaster waiting when Ethan earns a college scholarship to play football at Michigan State. The love connection during one life is painfully predictable. And, the blind acceptance in the final act stretches believability completely out of shape.
There have been far better movies built around dogs, from “Old Yeller” to “My Dog Skip.” Those movies showed the influence a pet can have on a family without having to create a time leap.
“A Dog’s Purpose” works with the initial story of a boy and his dog. Once the multiple deaths begin, it loses the tight bond between man and dog and never returns.
It’s hard to figure out who will want to see the film from director Lasse Hallstrom, based on W. Bruce Cameron’s book of the same name. Dog lovers have to endure the repeated death scenes that range from several dogs passing along because of old age to one being shot. Those who have no emotional connection to four-legged creatures will be bored by the endless parade of pooches.
It’s a shame “A Dog’s Purpose” doesn’t have more of a purpose than as a melodramatic mess. It proves that if a director lies down on making a movie about dogs, the audience will get up and flee.