With so many distractions vying for a person’s attention, including a bevy of social media platforms, a mess of gaming apps for smart phones, and an overload of binge-worthy television, movie studios have had to alter how they advertise their films. From teaser trailers to teasers for teaser trailers, studios have tried everything this side of making an actual great film to vie for your attention. In so doing, they have opted to throw anything and everything into their trailers regardless of whether it spoils a twist that would have been better had viewers been able to live that moment while watching the actual film. (I mean, how would people have felt had Twentieth Century Fox revealed that Darth Vader was Luke’s father in the trailer for The Empire Strikes Back?) A recent film that did it right was Split — entice, excite and save the big surprise for the actual movie. A Dog’s Purpose, on the other hand, is an example of what not to do, which is reveal every major plot point in the trailer and leave nothing for the audience to discover.
I thought maybe the trailer for A Dog’s Purpose gave too much away when I first saw it, but I hoped there would be some larger twist or plot point that was being deliberately left out. After seeing the film, unfortunately, the trailer is all you really need to understand the film. Though there are a few plot points left out, filling in the blanks isn’t too hard, and even if you can’t, they aren’t all that important when you already know going in how the movie is going to unfold.
Josh Gad voices what basically amounts to the spirit of a dog that continually gets reincarnated, living many different lives as he tries to understand his purpose in this crazy little world we call life and ultimately bring the story of the human characters full circle. Gad does a decent job with his good-natured voice-over, but I found a lot of the sequences where he wasn’t lamenting over what was happening or commenting on his feelings for any given situation to be better than those where his voice hovers over the scene. It sort of felt to me that the director, Lasse Hallström, could have created a much more dramatic piece had he dropped the voice-over completely, giving the humans more to do than just being there to support the dog. I know that may go against the purpose of the film, and there are some funny, sweet moments that come from the dog’s inner monologue, but it still left me wondering whether the film would have benefited without it.
The dog begins his journey as Bailey, a golden retriever that escapes his cage from a man who breeds and sells dogs to eventually wind up in the hands of Ethan (Bryce Gheisar), a young boy whose parents (Luke Kirby, Juliet Rylance) disagree on whether to keep him. The two are essentially inseparable, even after Bailey sets up a meet-cute between teen Ethan (K.J. Apa) and a fetching young girl, Hannah (Britt Robertson). The three become soul mates until an accident causes Ethan to break up with Hannah and head off to learn the ins and outs of managing his grandfather’s (Michael Bofshever) farm. Though Gad mentions that a later life is his best, I’m not sure I buy that sentiment based on the love he received from everyone in this initial life cycle, the story of which comes back toward the end of the film.
The problem is, there isn’t any real substance beyond the companionship between the boy and his dog. That relationship, no doubt, is the strongest in the film, and when Bailey eventually has to be put down, it’s heartbreaking. What failed to connect with me were the human relationships. Hallström wants us to feel just as much pain for the dissolution of Ethan’s relationship with Hannah so that we’ll all well up with emotion, but it’s hard to do that when the courtship is so rushed and superficial. The actors do fine with what they’re given, but it’s not enough to get anyone invested in what will eventually happen later.
I also couldn’t help but feel the other two lives Bailey leads between Ethan’s story are simply filler. Hallström wants us to feel something for each of Bailey’s owners, but because things are so choppy and underdeveloped, we’re left wanting so much more. The events that transpire when Bailey is a German Shepard help him later on, but the main story he tries to develop with the owner (John Ortiz) is dull and insubstantial. We’re meant to feel compassion for the officer’s circumstances, but when it comes time for Bailey to pass on to become a tubby, pampered corgi, the story felt unfinished. And though the sweet story of a young black college student looking for love does feel complete, the connection between this and everything else that happens feels more like a vignette of a different movie, one that if excised from the film, wouldn’t have made all that much of a difference to the overall story.
I’d be remiss if I reviewed this film without at least mentioning the hoopla over the leaked video of a dog handler forcing the German Shepard into a pool of rushing water, which has led many to seek a boycott against the film. I wasn’t on set during the incident, so I can’t speak to a 30-second snapshot of what actually took place, or the circumstances behind what was sent to TMZ. My recommendation (or lack thereof) for A Dog’s Purpose is based solely on the merits of the film, which are mixed to say the least. Though you’ve basically seen the entirety of the film in the trailer, the moments that strike a chord work very well, and for these moments alone I would say waiting for video or cable would be the right place to give it a chance. That way, when your emotions get the better of you and you have to empty the Kleenex box, at least you can do so while holding onto your own four-legged companion.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include The Space Between Us and Rings. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.