Swedish director Lasse Hallström may be one of the faces of feel-good, accessible-to-all entertainment. He is, after all, the man behind most of ABBA’s music videos, aside from films like The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. His latest, A Dog’s Purpose, is based on W Bruce Cameron’s bestseller and traverses similar cinematic territory.
It’s redundant to say that this tale of a dog who undergoes multiple reincarnations trying to understand his (and in one case, her) purpose will appeal to dog-lovers — it’s like saying Rajinikanth fans are likely to appreciate his latest release.
Our protagonist starts off as a puppy in 1950s America who is quickly taken to a dog pound and put to death. Soon, he is reincarnated as Bailey, a lovable golden retriever voiced by the affable Josh Gad, who lands up in the care of young Ethan Montgomery (Bryce Gheisar). The time now is the early ‘60s — we know this because the Cuban Missile Crisis is mentioned — and the setting is the familiar slice of Americana we all know from shows like The Wonder Years.
Gad’s voice-over provides a wise-cracking Look Who’s Talking-like perspective to the narrative, which often contribute to the movie’s strongest and most likeable portions. It’s impossible to not be charmed by Bailey’s musings about how cats probably want to be just like dogs, or his confusion at how often human adults look for food inside each other’s mouths.
As Ethan grows up to become a strapping, handsome young football player (KJ Apa) who starts dating Hannah (Britt Roberstson), the saccharine-sweetness starts to scale back, but only just. Ethan’s dad, Jim (Luke Kirby), is a stressed-out travelling salesman who, over the years, turns to alcoholism. He’s the closest this film comes to having a real antagonist.
Just when the film feels like it’s getting too cloying for comfort, Bailey passes on and is reincarnated as a female German Shepherd named Ellie. She (although, inexplicably, the voice-over is still Gad’s — didn’t know souls had genders) works as a sniffer dog for the Chicago Police Department under the care of officer Carlos Ruiz (John Ortiz). And so on, we are treated to further reincarnations of Bailey: a Corgi named Tino who lives in Atlanta; a St Bernard named Buddy who faces neglect for years before being abandoned.
What’s frustrating about A Dog’s Purpose is its refusal to delve deeper into the skin of its most interesting human characters, such as Jim, a baby boomer archetype who cannot keep up with the neo-liberalist agenda of working oneself to alcoholism or death (whichever comes first); and Carlos, whose loneliness is acknowledged, but in a templatised, 'this happens in big cities' manner.
Indeed, loneliness is a running theme and begs to be addressed in a more complete, satisfying manner; however, Hallström is evidently more interested in cutesy-pie sentimentalism.
When Bailey corners a jealous high-school classmate of Ethan’s who, as a prank, accidentally sets fire to their home, it feels like we’re watching an episode of Lassie. The story shows signs of complexity, but succumbs to a sweeping, Forrest Gump-like arc so as to widen its target audience. A Dog’s Purpose succeeds at being passable family-friendly entertainment, but falls short of fulfilling any deeper cinematic purpose.
(The author is a film critic and culture journalist who resides in Mumbai. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at a leading website and has written for a number of publications. In his spare time, he makes music. When free from all of the above, he travels.)
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